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Mitt Romney's Tough Road to Tampa

1:30 PM, Dec 1, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Over at NRO, Michael Tanner runs down the big problem with a potential Mitt Romney candidacy:

Romney will have several powerful advantages: name recognition, plenty of money, a strong organization left over from 2008, and a reputation for business competence during an election in which economic issues and job creation are likely to dominate. But he will also have one enormous albatross hanging around his neck: the Massachusetts health-care program...

Romney’s problem is that, despite his demurrals, the parallels between Obamacare and his 2006 Massachusetts reform plan are striking. Both plans are built around an individual mandate requiring citizens to purchase a government-designed insurance plan. Both plans dramatically increase government subsidies and Medicaid eligibility. Both plans use an exchange to redesign the individual and small-group insurance markets, creating a “managed competition” model for insurance. And both Massachusetts and Obamacare prohibit insurers from managing risk, shifting costs from older and sicker individuals to the young and healthy. Neither Obamacare nor Romneycare includes any substantial cost-containment mechanism.

Right now, Romney is at the top of the heap of would-be presidential contenders, but I do not think this means all that much. That is based almost entirely on name recognition, and after his 2008 nomination campaign, Romney became a household name.

Frankly, I don't see how Romney gets around "Romneycare;" the fact that an august conservative outlet like National Review is publishing an article calling it "Romneycare" is testament to the trouble that he will have in winning the most delegates at the GOP convention, which will be held in Tampa in 2012.

In a lot of respects, this is unfortunate. Romney's biggest liability in his quest to be the Republican nominee is his home state of Massachusetts, where political necessity forced him farther to the left than I'm guessing he would otherwise have gone. After all, this is what spiked his candidacy in 2008 -- only back then it had more to do with abortion than health care. On that issue, Romney had to finesse his shift, which in turn created space for Mike Huckabee to come from behind in the Iowa caucuses. That created a vacuum in the party that John McCain, left for political dead months prior, was ultimately able to come back and fill. I'm guessing that "Romneycare" will be as devastating to Romney's prospects in 2012.

Fifty years ago, Romney's Massachusetts roots would not have mattered nearly as much. The Republicans regularly nominated moderates for the presidency -- between Hoover and Reagan, only one bona fide conservative, Barry Goldwater, won the party's nomination. Indeed, in 1960 Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. of Massachusetts, who had been the principal booster of Dwight Eisenhower's candidacy over the more conservative Robert Taft, ended up as the GOP vice presidential nominee, behind Richard Nixon, who himself was very moderate on domestic policies. But today the conservatives control the Republican party nominating process, meaning that a Republican with a fairly moderate governing record in a blue state like Massachusetts has but one path to the nomination: convince the party that he is more conservative than his record. That's easier said than done, especially when a program like "Romneycare" is out there.

Lest Democrats get too boisterous about this, they should know that they have precisely the same issue. Bill Clinton is the only Democrat since FDR to win reelection, but he was no runaway favorite. He did not win a significant primary in 1992 until Georgia (having lost New Hampshire, Colorado, and Maryland), and it was the Southern-dominated "Super Tuesday" that catapulted him to victory. I'd bet dollars to donuts that a candidate like Bill Clinton could not be the 21st century Democratic party's nominee. In 2008, would an Evan Bayh or a Phil Bredeson have won the Democratic nomination? Heck no! Not even Hillary Clinton could capture it.

So, Romney's presidential prospects are, in my view, a victim of the polarization of American politics. Republicans from deep blue regions cannot win their party's nomination, nor can Democrats from deep red regions. Is this a bad thing? For Mitt Romney it is, but the GOP will have plenty of good candidates to pick from. Romney is certainly not indispensable to the Grand Old Party! And strategically speaking, I think the party's best bet is to pick a nominee from a purple region, especially a state that has gone Republican in cycles past, but most recently went for Obama. 

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