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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What It Takes To Win a Republican Presidential Nomination

As the 2012 Republican presidential field slowly takes shape, there’s been some very interesting discussion hither and yon about the nature of the GOP and its nominating process, and what separates a viable from a non-viable candidacy. Some of it has been stimulated by talk of various potential dark-horse candidates, from Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour to (most recently) Jon Huntsman, and I’ve been pretty outspoken in skepticism about the ability of such folk to make a serious run for it against better-known and better-prepared personalities.
But one dispute that remains wide-open involves the strange case of Mitt Romney, and whether his never-recanted sponsorship of state health reform legislation in Massachusetts that closely resembles (particularly in its use of an individual mandate for health insurance purchasing) ObamaCare will or will not doom his 2012 presidential aspirations.
Yesterday I took issue with Ben Smith’s claim that the shift in emphasis to “federalist” arguments against ObamaCare as a result of judicial challenges would save Romney’s bacon. Today let’s look at the argument of my brilliant friend Jonathan Bernstein that the elites who decide who lives or dies in GOP politics just won’t care enough about Mitt’s health care apostasy to count him out.
Here’s Jonathan:

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).

The real key to Jonathan’s argument is that any conservative activists who have already swallowed Mitt’s flip-flops on gay rights, gun control, or (especially) abortion are probably going to be able to stomach his position on health reform. But here’s the thing: Romney did in fact flip-flop on the earlier issues. He hasn’t abandoned his support for RomneyCare, with its individual mandate and health insurance purchasing exchanges, at all; he’s just tried to claim, without much success, that they are fundamentally different from the same provisions of ObamaCare. As for the idea that Romney will eventually flip-flop on his own health care plan, I just don’t buy it: he’s been defending it for years as his signature contribution to health care policy. It’s just too late for him to suddenly decide it was a bad idea all along.
I agree with Jonathan that the whole subject is less viscerally important to conservative activists than abortion, but I’m not sure that will be true after this year’s (and possibly next year’s) daily demonization of ObamaCare in general and the individual mandate in particular.
More importantly, even if Romney is not “vetoed” by activists or party leaders for his health care problem, it’s hardly going to help him nail down their support, either, which is a real concern for a candidate who does not inspire much excitement anywhere in the party. And as Jonathan notes, other candidates’ attacks on Romney for his health care record can and will matter to that other vital constituency in the Republican nominating process, actual voters in the caucuses and primaries.
Now Jonathan has a much lower estimate of the power of actual voters in the GOP nominating process than I do. Yes, the elites that run the “invisible primary” can and often do make or break candidates. But they are not invincible. Consider 2000, when George W. Bush amassed the most impressive array of elite support going into an open presidential year that anyone’s ever seen. He had the money guys. He had the right-to-lifers and other cultural conservatives. He had the foreign policy mavens. He had the Wall Street Journal/business crowd. He had anti-tax commissar Grover Norquist. He had it all, and nearly lost the nomination to John McCain–whom the elites heartily disliked–by getting drubbed in New Hampshire. I was living in Washington at the time and knew some pretty influential conservatives, and they were in a state of complete panic the week after that primary. And as we remember, it took a scorched-earth, Total War effort against McCain in South Carolina to derail him and put Bush back on track.
And that was with the elites totally behind a candidate. This will not be the case in 2012; it’s more likely to resemble the untidy process of 2008, when a handful of activists in Iowa and a relatively small number of voters in New Hampsire, South Carolina and Florida decided the contest in favor of the elites’ least favorite candidate.
Even if the elites do unite behind someone, it almost certainly will not be Mitt Romney. He will have to sell himself in the early primaries, and I’d be shocked if his health care record doesn’t come up every single day on the campaign trail. It won’t be the only concern raised by Romney, but it could very well be the first and last and the most crucial.
Sure, we won’t know until it all comes down. But the bottom line is that the people who control the Republican nominating process–both the elites and actual voters–are not particularly in the mood to be tolerant about ideological heresies, or give candidates a pass based on electibility (after 2010, they believe all their candidates, with the possible exception of Sarah Palin, are electable) or general good behavior. Without his health care problem, Mitt Romney would have a tough time in Iowa and perhaps elsewhere in the early going, but would probably be the front-runner. With his health care problem, he’s a very bad bet to be on the podium in Tampa to raise hands with Marc Rubio as leader of the GOP ticket.

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