Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Mittster and Health Care

I'm a little skeptical of the belief that Mitt Romney has a health care problem, at least as a candidate for the Republican nomination for president (see, for example, Jamelle Bouie here).

We can think of two sorts of electorates when it comes to nomination politics. The first and most important are party elites: activists, campaign and governing professionals, politicians, party-aligned interest groups, formal party officials and staff. Romney (or any candidate) will need to do two things with this electorate, which is choosing its candidates right now and throughout this year: he will have to gain supporters, and avoid becoming veto-bait for any important faction.

As far as supporters, it seems to me that the groups most inclined to choose Romney are the business community and, perhaps, GOPers who are afraid of nominating a fringe factional candidate -- he's the safe port candidate. For the most part, I don't think his health care history will prevent any of them from signing on. Will it make him clearly unacceptable to activists who might otherwise have little interest, but not actively try to veto his selection? I doubt it. As far as I can tell, health care is just one of many issues on which Romney previously supported things that are anathema to activists and some interest groups. If they're willing to accept his abortion conversion, I can't see why they wouldn't accept this one (which involves not a conversion, at least so far, but a willingness to believe that his position is really way different than ACA). Sure, it could be one-too-far, but there's no way that health care individual mandates is as big a deal to GOP activists as abortion (and there's no organized group that really cares about it, either). And, remember, Romney will certainly shift to whatever position he needs to hold in order to get the nomination (given that anyone who cares about long-term consistency will be looking elsewhere).

What about the second electorate, the mass electorate of the primaries and caucuses next year? They're a lot less likely to be focused on issues, and in most cases they'll follow opinion leadership. If he's still a viable candidate by then, GOP opinion leaders who support him or are neutral will tend to downplay issues that hurt him.

Other candidates, of course, will not be so kind. Will attack ads based on health care resonate among GOP voters? That's not quite the right question; what we really want to know is whether attacks based on health care will resonate with voters who would be otherwise unmoved by attacks on flip-flopping on other issues (for that matter, it doesn't matter for any voters who already won't vote for him based on religion). Generally, I'm pretty skeptical of that, although surely its not impossible (and see Ezra Klein for a suggestion of how Romney could, perhaps, fight back -- although while I agree that universal coverage is popular overall, I'm not convinced that it's a winner among Republican primary voters).

More to the point, the mass electorate only matters if the race isn't wrapped up earlier.

Now, I'm not at all saying that Romney is going to win, or even that he's in great shape. I just don't think that the health care issue in particular is all that big a deal for him to get around. Remember, though: if GOP elites sour on him for other reasons, then you may well see them blast his Massachusetts plan, and primary voters will pick up on that and mention it as a reason for opposing him. So it's hard, even after the fact, to figure out the effects of issues in these cases.

Updated: language changed in a few places for clarity, to make it clear that Romney hasn't, at least so far, disowned the MA plan.


  1. >If they're willing to accept his abortion conversion, I can't see why they wouldn't accept this one.

    He didn't "convert" on this one. He stands by his health-care initiative--his spokesman even called it his signature achievement--but he simply denies it is similar to, much less the blueprint for, Obamacare. So it's not a matter of trying to convince people his conversion is genuine (or at least that he'll stay committed to his new position), it's a matter of trying to fool people into thinking that something he continues to stand by is not like something they despise.

  2. That's a good point, and I really didn't write this as clearly as I should have. My working assumption is that he will flip, when and if it makes sense for him to -- and that attacking something so close to the thing he's defending is a kind of flip, anyway. I was trying to write quickly, and it didn't really come out that way.

    I don't think it's necessary for me to rework that above (is it?), but you're right about it. Doesn't change the logic of the post, though.

  3. Wouldn't it be easier for him to keep doing what he is doing now: simply deny that there is any similarity? After all, actual health care policy substance is both numbingly complex and numbingly dull - heaven for hard core wonks, but hell for everyone else, and therefore easily ignored.

  4. If he's going to flip at all, he might as well have done it long ago. It would be a triple-flip--first pro-HCR, then denying the obvious similarities between his HCR bill and Obama's, then renouncing it entirely. It would look even less convincing than his abortion flip, and be squeezed into a much smaller slot of time. Can you imagine the ads? Just a few short clips and not only will he appear as the most shamelessly opportunistic politicians in recent memory, but it'll invite the question of why anyone should vote for a candidate who renounces what he had only recently called his signature achievement.

    Given all this, I'm betting he's going to continue with his current strategy. It has the advantage of containing a philosophically valid argument (the difference between state and federal power), even though it runs perpendicular to the typical GOP attacks on Obamacare. But make no mistake: it'll pose a significant hurdle in his path to the nomination.

  5. I think that you're right, but I'd toss in the following:

    the individual mandate was originally embraced by Republicans, back in the 90s. (some people even suggest they first heard of the idea in a McCain speech back then)

    No, opposition to the individual mandate has absolutely nothing to do with the mandate itself (I truly doubt that many Republicans care about the liberties of people without employer-provided healthcare), and everything to do with the party (and dare I say it, the race) of the president at the time it was passed.

    So, Mitt can get away with his dance, simply because he's a good guy, and as others have noted, the issue is hard. The vast majority of people don't know where they stand on it until they got told by someone. Abortion, taxes...those are easy, and they're easy to catch somebody straying from dogma. But actual policymaking? You can't get in trouble on that.


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