In a sign of how it plans to handle the issue, the Romney team’s response was short and to the point: Next?
“Mitt Romney is proud of what he accomplished for Massachusetts in getting everyone covered,” Fehrnstrom said in a written statement. “What’s important now is to return to the states the power to determine their own health care solutions by repealing Obamacare. A one-size-fits-all plan for the entire nation just doesn’t work.”
At the conservative conference in Washington, Romney mentioned a federal health care “takeover” only briefly and didn’t say a word about his record as governor. He also ignored the social issues that bedeviled him in 2008 except for a quick mention of protecting “the unborn.”
If his CPAC speech is a window into Romney’s campaign, he will frame the race as a referendum on Obama’s economic policies. That looks like solid ground for a successful corporate executive with a Harvard business degree.
“He knows he should run to his strength, and that’s what he’s going to do,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, who supported Rudy Giuliani in 2008.
“My gut tells me that health care will be asked and answered, and then people will move on,” said Wall Street investor Lewis Eisenberg, a major fundraiser for McCain in 2008 who is now collecting money for Romney’s PAC. “In the end, it won’t be the deciding factor. The No. 1 issue is jobs and, in the broader sense, the economy, the deficit, and taxes.”
Some Romney supporters point to McCain’s experience in 2008 as instructive. The Arizonan won the GOP nomination despite spearheading campaign finance and immigration reforms pilloried by conservatives. If McCain could overcome those obstacles, the thinking goes, Romney can overcome health care reform.
Perhaps. But campaign finance and immigration were secondary issues in 2008, eclipsed by the debate over the war in Iraq—an issue that played to McCain’s strengths. Even if health care reform is not the dominant issue in the presidential race, it seems destined to be a major factor whether Romney talks about it or not. Legal cases questioning its constitutionality are proceeding through the courts. GOP governors are challenging its implementation in their states. And congressional Republicans are trying to defund it. All three of those lines of attack are likely to continue well into 2012.
If Romney were facing a more fearsome crop of competitors, his health care record might well be a deal-breaker. His front-running status endures because every one of his likely rivals shoulders major liabilities.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s downfall could be his salad days as a Washington lobbyist. Jon Huntsman, tapped by Obama to be the U.S. ambassador to China, will have to explain his work for a Democratic administration. Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, lacks a strong identity and national profile.
“Mitt said the other day, ‘Every potential candidate has a but, as in, I like Huckabee but … or, I like Sarah Palin but.… Well, my but is health care,’ ” said Rood, the Florida fundraiser. “In a perfect world, it would be nice if he hadn’t taken that issue on. It’s definitely the No. 1 question I get from potential supporters. But there is no perfect candidate.”
THE REAL THING
Romney can train his sights on Obama’s economic record and promote his own boardroom experience, but a candidate can’t control outside political forces and unexpected events that may pivot voters in other directions. The surging tea party movement turned several 2010 primaries into conservative purity tests. In the Gallup survey, voters who prioritize social issues and moral values leaned heavily toward Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, and Palin, a born-again Christian.
Skepticism toward Romney among religious voters is nothing new. He received only 20 percent of the evangelical vote in the 2008 primaries, according to ABC News exit polls, compared with 39 percent for Huckabee. In South Carolina, a key early-voting state where evangelicals made up 60 percent of the GOP primary electorate in 2008, Romney got support from only 11 percent.
Romney’s religion was undoubtedly a factor; supporters say it’s less relevant four years later. Voters have had time to get used to the idea of a Mormon candidate, and they did send a black man named Barack Hussein Obama to the White House. If Huntsman decides to run, there will be not one but two Mormons in the race, defusing religion as an issue.
So if Romney can successfully navigate the minefield that is his health care record, and avoid getting drawn into awkward debates about social issues, and keep voters’ minds off his religion—all possible—he’s down to just one, giant, overriding problem.
Keeping it real.
Romney has already stumbled in that respect by revising parts of his latest book before it was released in paperback. While the hardcover version of No Apology gives a mixed review of Obama’s massive economic-stimulus plan, the post-tea party paperback declares it a “failure.” The newer version also takes a harder line against the president’s health insurance agenda.
“Every book gets updated when it goes from hardback to paperback,” Fehrnstrom said. “He updated the sections to talk specifically about the impact of the legislation.”
Most Republican leaders who sized up the stimulus and health care plans immediately predicted doom. Romney’s revisions will come in handy for critics eager to discredit him as a double-talker.
Warren Tompkins, Romney’s South Carolina consultant in 2008, suggested that he could learn a thing or two from politically incorrect politicians such as Palin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. People don’t agree with everything they say but think they mean it.
“You’ve got to be true to who you are and what you believe in, and if you’re not comfortable with what you’re saying, people can see through it,” Tompkins said. “If you’re a buttoned-down guy, you need to stay a buttoned-down kind of guy. You have to be genuine and consistent and willing to state what’s on your mind, not give pat answers. That’s what people are looking for in this political climate.”
Romney showed a willingness to poke fun at his Ken doll-visage when he appeared in February on CBS’s Late Show With David Letterman—without a tie—and recited the “Top 10 Things You Don’t Know About Mitt Romney.” Tall, dark-haired, and handsome, Romney quipped, “No. 8: I’m the guy in the photo that comes with your picture frame.”
Ha. Romney’s picture-perfect image could be harder to shake than the oft-maligned individual mandate in his health care plan. His starched-shirt polish contrasts with the accessibility created by Huckabee’s Oprah-like confessions about weight gain and Barbour’s sly, Southern charm.
Romney may have hit the right tone in his CPAC speech when he talked about his father, a college dropout who apprenticed as a lath-and-plaster carpenter and rose to become chairman of American Motors. George Romney went on to serve as governor of Michigan and lose a presidential bid.
“For my dad, America was the land of opportunity, where free enterprise, small business, and entrepreneurs were encouraged and respected,” the son said. “I refuse to believe that America is just another place on the map with a flag. I believe that America is an exceptional nation of freedom, opportunity, and hope.”
He brought the crowd to its feet.
Correction: An earlier version of the graphic accompanying this story should have listed Elizabeth Dole as a potential candidate for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.
This article appears in the March 5, 2011, edition of National Journal.