Why Mitt Romney's Health Care Record Won't Stop Him

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The Republican base loves panderers. Romney may be more obvious than most, but that won't keep voters away in the end.

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In his new Washington Examiner column, Tim Carney runs through the conventional argument that GOP candidate Mitt Romney is uniquely ill-suited to challenging President Obama in 2012. "Obamacare was the catalyst for the GOP electoral victory in 2010. The law's individual mandate was the prime offense motivating the conservative base. Legal challenges to the mandate became flash points, and the mandate's chief prosecutor, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, has become a conservative champion," he writes. "The fight to unseat Obama in 2012 also is expected to revolve around Obamacare -- particularly its infringements on individual liberty, its naked budget gimmickry to hide a spending time bomb, and the central-planner technocratic mind-set it embodies. So it's hard to imagine a worse leader for this fight than Mitt Romney. Romneycare in Massachusetts not only looks a lot like Obamacare, it literally was a model for Obamacare."

It's true that a lot of conservatives think that way about a Romney candidacy, but their reasoning is unpersuasive for several reasons. Most obviously, there is every reason for the GOP nominee to run a campaign that revolves around the economy. It would be foolish indeed to run primarily against Obamacare, especially since the average American voter, whatever he or she thinks about the legislation, isn't exactly eager to trust the Republican Party's approach to health care, if the GOP can even be said to have a coherent approach. Do Republicans really want to pit Rick Perry's record on health care against Obama's record, have them discuss the merits a few times on debate stages, and have those exchanges determine the winner of the presidential election?

Of course, health care will come up. And if Romney is the nominee, what will become of all the conservatives who've spent the last year referring to an individual mandate as the unconstitutional work of a tyrant? As Doug Mataconis puts it, "The Mitt Romney of 2012 is essentially the same Mitt Romney who was endorsed by National Review and lauded at CPAC 2008 when he stood in a ballroom and announced that he was withdrawing from the Presidential race.They'll just vote Romney." He's right. In other words, the cognitive dissonance that brought them from "Romney should be president" in 2008 to "Romneycare is completely unacceptable" in 2010 can as easily get them to "I'm voting Romney" in 2012. It was never really about health care.

Some will tell themselves that it's one thing for a state to do something, and quite another for the federal government to do it. (Which is true.) Others will note that Romney has promised to give every state an Obamacare waiver and to do his best to repeal the legislation. (And it's very likely that Romney would do as much as any other Republican president to dismantle Obama's health-care overhaul.) Still others will maintain the same cognitive dissonance that permits them to trust the Heritage Foundation, onetime champion of the mandate, and to think that Obama is a tyrant; or that permits them to laud Rick Perry, who wrote a letter to Hilary Clinton praising her health-care efforts, even while denouncing Romney for passing a health-care overhaul in Massachusetts; or that permitted them to lament the rise of John McCain for months on end while listening to the Rush Limbaugh show, and then to vote for him in 2008. The cognitive dissonance of voting for Romney, despite his record on health care, will be every bit as easy for them to handle as the Obama supporters who called Bush/Cheney national security policies creeping fascism, and who'll eagerly support President Obama's reelection bid, despite his embrace of the same policies. Lots of American voters are the ballot box equivalent of partisan hacks. And in 2012 especially, the conservative base is going to vote against Obama, regardless of who the Republican Party nominates.

Don't get me wrong. It's often painful to watch Romney's spectacular capacity for transparent pandering and flip-flopping, even as he brazenly denies doing it. But there is even a way in which Romney, on a debate stage with Obama, is better positioned to win an exchange on health care than most other GOP candidates, because for all his running away from his own record, he is well-versed in discussing the issue, can accurately claim to have reduced the number of uninsured in his state, and isn't open to the attack that he doesn't care about people affected by the dysfunctional status quo. He is an adept enough debater to skewer Obama for the least defensible aspects of Obama's health-care overhaul -- the corporatism, the misleading CBO score, the selective waivers, etc. Then he'll listen to Obama's retorts and obfuscate. He's good at it. The whole display is unseemly and awful to watch, but that doesn't mean that it isn't effective.

And if you reflect very long on the Romney alternatives to whom the GOP's conservative base has been drawn, whether Perry or Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain or Sarah Palin or even the briefly popular Donald Trump, you very quickly start to notice that, however much voters may claim to hate candidates who disingenuously pander, the whole lot of them does so in ways so transparent that you'd think it would be embarrassing to support them. Meanwhile, successful governors like Mitch Daniels and Gary Johnson, whose economic records are unimpeachably conservative, go nowhere even as they steadfastly refuse to pander.

Some coincidence, isn't it? It's almost as if being a disingenuous panderer is a precondition of winning the Republican nomination, rather than an impediment to doing so. The reason so many conservatives hate to see Romney as the nominee is because when he's pandering to them, it's impossible to suspend disbelief. It forces them to face up to the revealed preference that part of them wants that from GOP politicians, whereas when they listen to Perry or Bachmann or Palin they can almost persuade themselves that they're listening to authentic people.

But not quite.

Romney 2012: "The truth hurts."

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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