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Can Mitt Romney Get His Groove Back?

With Republican prospects for 2010, and just maybe 2012, trending upward, it’s worth noting that Mitt Romney, the insiders’ front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, has announced a publicity tour for his upcoming book, No Apology. He'll begin with two stops in (surprise!) Iowa in March.

Team Romney has tried to suppress in advance any comparisons between the Mittster’s round of book signings and that of Sarah Palin. “We’re not going to match her crowd size or sales. These are two different people with different ways of expressing themselves," Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney spokesman, told The Boston Globe. But, even if he's no Sarah Palin, putative candidate Romney needs to show with this tour that he's got his groove back.

After losing the GOP nomination 2008, he dropped below most Americans’ radar screens. Yet he retains most of his original points of appeal: the granite visage, the competent-exec air, the economic policy fluency, and the résumé that includes being governor of blue-state Massachusetts and CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics, which is sure to make him a regular quote machine during the upcoming Vancouver games. Each day that passes takes him further away from the social policy heresies of his earlier political career. And some Republican insiders really do believe that a prior failed presidential bid is an essential box to check, making him arguably “next in line” for the nomination.

More importantly, the likely GOP field for 2012, in comparison to the 2008 crop, looks a bit easier for Mitt to manage. As National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru observed in a smart piece in October, Mitt didn’t fit in 2008 as the conservative alternative to John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, but he will find it easier in 2012 to be the establishment candidate acceptable to movement conservatives:

Romney seems more naturally an establishmentarian than a conservative insurgent, so this strategy would be a better fit for him than his last one. He is not a man to be swayed by the momentary passions of his party’s base; pretending otherwise adds to his reputation for slickness. If he ran as an establishment candidate, the fact that he used to take less-conservative positions would still matter. But it would not matter as much, because he would no longer have to prove himself as a true-blue conservative.

If either Mike Huckabee (strangely undamaged by the Maurice Clemmons firestorm of late November) or Sarah Palin runs in 2012, much of the oxygen among social conservatives will be bottled up. Since the GOP establishment really dislikes Huck and doesn’t have much faith in Palin, other than as a hobgoblin with which to terrify progressives, Romney would be nicely set up to be the “responsible conservative” in the race, competing for that mantle mainly with Tim Pawlenty, who makes Mitt look like Mr. Excitement.

But there’s one major problem with Romney’s positioning for 2012--and it’s a very big one: He may no longer be “acceptable” to movement conservatives thanks to his sponsorship of a health reform plan in Massachusetts that looks uncomfortably like the legislation that Barack Obama will probably be signing early this year.

In his profile of a possible Romney 2012 run, Ponnuru notes this problem, along with Mitt’s rationalizations for it:

Romney makes three arguments in his defense. The first is that a Democratic legislature and his Democratic successor made the plan worse than his original conception. The second is that he has no intention of pushing the Massachusetts plan on the entire country. Health-care reform, he tells me, “should occur on a state-by-state basis.” The third is that the plan has worked out well for his state. “The plan is well within budget and has accomplished its objectives at a relatively modest cost.”

It’s that third point that could get Romney into trouble. The cost to the state government has indeed been modest. But the plan was designed so that the state picks up only a fifth of the costs the plan generates, with the federal government and the private sector absorbing the rest. Premiums are growing much faster than in the rest of the nation. Waiting times are up, too, which imposes costs on people. The plan is losing popularity in Massachusetts. Ideally, Romney would learn from this experience that a reform centered on state governments’ manipulation of federal dollars is a mistake. At the very least, Romney would be foolish to keep defending the plan.

But, given the hopped-up rhetoric among Republicans about “Obamacare” since Ponnuru wrote these words, it may not be enough for Romney to “stop defending” his health care plan. For one thing, right-wing hysteria is now increasingly centered on the supposed tyranny imposed by the individual mandate, which Romney has always championed. But, were he to flatly repudiate his own record, the “flip-flop” attacks on his character would resume with a real vengeance.

Put simply, Romney can’t just recalibrate his 2008 race based on the 2012 landscape and expect to win. This isn’t the Republican Party of two or three years ago; it’s moved palpably to the right. While Romney’s 2008 rivals took some shots at his health care record, it wasn’t that big a deal in the contest. But, at that point in history, conservatives weren’t in the habit of using Slavedrivers-of-Collectivism rhetoric about individual mandates or other features of the Massachusetts system.

With health care policy certain to remain front-and-center in Republican politics for the foreseeable future, the supposed front-runner for the 2012 GOP nomination may face an impossible, disqualifying problem. And, given the choices Republicans look likely to have (any “fresh faces” emerging in 2010 won’t be ready for an immediate presidential race), that’s a very big problem for a party that considers itself on the brink of a return to power in the next few years.

Ed Kilgore is Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.

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