The early anointment of Mitt Romney or any other presidential candidate will repeat a common GOP mistake.
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Having a pro-bailout Republican as titular head of the party already proved disastrous in 2008, when McCain passed up his last chance to make the presidential contest competitive by signing on to TARP. It will serve the GOP no better next year, when Republicans will be dependent on the grassroots enthusiasm of Tea Party activists who deem the $700 billion bailout an unconstitutional betrayal of principle.
Romney has tried to square this circle by saying he supported the Bush version of TARP, in which the federal government was supposed to buy up troubled assets, rather than the Obama version. “Secretary Paulson’s TARP prevented a systemic collapse of the national financial system,” he writes in his pre-campaign book No Apologies. “Secretary Geithner’s TARP became an opaque, heavy-handed, expensive slush fund. It should be shut down.”
This is a politically untenable position. First, it was always likely that TARP would become an expensive slush fund. The measure lacked both accountability and any clarity as to how it was going to achieve its stated purpose from the very beginning. But more importantly, Romney ignores the real arguments against the bailout — based on opportunity cost and moral hazard — and accepts the establishment insistence that TARP averted a systemic financial collapse. Reduced to haggling over details, this essentially concedes a crucial debate to Obama.
And not for the last time. There will be no bigger issue in the 2012 presidential election than the national health care law signed by Obama. If Republicans wind up with unified control of the government, repealing that law will be their top priority. The window for doing so may be small — by 2014, new subsidies and benefits will kick in, building a constituency for the law based on self-interest rather than just ideology — and failure could well doom the entire conservative project of preventing the United States from becoming a full-blown European-style welfare state.
THERE’S JUST ONE PROBLEM: the Massachusetts health care bill Romney signed into law — and for which he continues to take credit — is virtually indistinguishable from ObamaCare. Both plans mandate that individuals purchase health insurance. Both provide government subsidies for people to buy government-approved insurance policies from government-run exchanges. Both expand existing government health care programs.
Jonathan Gruber, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology health care economist who advised both Romney and Obama, told the Wall Street Journal, “If any one person in the world deserves credit for where we are now, it’s Mitt Romney….He designed the structure of the federal bill.” The Obama team is well aware of the similarities. Before the bill passed, White House political adviser David Axelrod argued: “We’re just trying to give the rest of America the same opportunities that the people of Massachusetts have.”
Obama has made this argument himself. “You know, you’ve got a former governor of Massachusetts who’s running around saying ‘What’s this health reform bill?’” the president joked at a Boston fundraiser before the bill became law. “And I keep on scratching my head and I say, boy, this Massachusetts thing, who designed that?” Obama so looks forward to campaigning against Romney on this issue that he told CBS News that ObamaCare is “the sort of plan proposed by current Republican nominee Mitt Romney.”
Romney isn’t the Republican nominee yet. But there is little question that if he were, it would set back the movement to repeal ObamaCare. By simultaneously criticizing the new federal law and taking credit for the similar Massachusetts law, Romney is walking a difficult tightrope — one some of his own public comments suggest may be impossible. Consider this bit from New Hampshire, as quoted by the New York Times: “[Obama is] saying that I was the guy that came up with the idea for what he did,” Romney said. “If ever again somewhere down the road I would be debating him, I would be happy to take credit for his accomplishment.”
Romney is on record supporting repeal, though his political action committee — committed to supporting “candidates who will repeal the worst aspects of ObamaCare” — was a little more ambiguous. His efforts to reconcile these two positions are reminiscent of his TARP tergiversations. First he blames the Democrats in the state legislature for “the worst aspects” of RomneyCare. But Romney still signed the bill, with Ted Kennedy and the Beacon Hill Democratic leadership at his side. In this, Romney sounds like the Democrats who voted for the Iraq war resolution and then professed shock that it resulted in a war. Two of these Democrats, John Kerry and John Edwards, proved pretty inept at running against the Iraq war during the 2004 presidential campaign.
There’s also an appeal to federalism: RomneyCare was a state experiment while ObamaCare is a one-size-fits-all federal policy. This argument worked for Scott Brown in last year’s special election for U.S. Senate. But it will be harder to advance in a presidential contest, especially since the individual mandate — a core component of both plans — has become central to the constitutional challenges against ObamaCare. You could argue that RomneyCare’s individual mandate is toothless compared to ObamaCare’s, but then you would have to acknowledge the extent to which Massachusetts increased enrollment in Medicaid, a federal program.
To most voters’ ears, the blogger Daniel Larison is probably right that these arguments will sound like the following: “we will never yield in our opposition to the outrageously irresponsible and unaffordable federal bill, and we will defend the outrageously irresponsible and unaffordable Massachusetts bill to the death!” The bigger problem is that Romney was hardly alone in embracing ideas he would now like to repeal. David Frum correctly observed that ObamaCare “builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to ClintonCare in 1993-1994.” That’s a lot harder to justify on the basis of federalism, unless conservatives and Republicans make a clean break from their past record of advocating ObamaCare Lite.
On Hugh Hewitt’s radio program, Karl Rove recently advised Romney to recognize that the fact that “what they did in Massachusetts looks so much like what Obama tried to do to the country” is a political problem. But the solution isn’t obvious. Disavowing the Massachusetts law would deprive Romney of a major policy accomplishment. It would also add to the growing list of flip-flops that prevented him from consolidating the anti-McCain vote in 2008. The clips of him confidently supporting RomneyCare — even proclaiming “I like mandates, the mandates worked” — will be replayed as endlessly as his emphatic promises to Bay State voters that he was pro-choice on abortion.
PERHAPS ROMNEY WILL be able to change the subject to jobs and the economy. The official unemployment rate will probably be at least 8 percent by the time Obama faces the voters, and might well be higher (it’s currently hovering around 10 percent). Unlike Obama, Romney has a real record of creating private-sector jobs and understanding business. But as Ted Kennedy demonstrated in his 1994 reelection campaign, Romney’s private-sector background is a double-edged sword.
Romney’s venture capital firm, Bain, saved companies and jobs, but its leveraged buyouts frequently led to layoffs. Facing a strong challenge from Romney, Kennedy flooded Massachusetts’ airwaves with these workers’ tales. “I’d like him to show me where these 10,000 jobs that he created are,” said one former American Pad & Paper employee. Another looked into the camera and warned voters: “I’d like to say to the people of Massachusetts: ‘If you think it can’t happen to you, think again. We thought it wouldn’t happen here, either.’”
These attacks were unfair. Romney had already taken leave from Bain Capital by the time the American Pad & Paper layoffs took place. But given the nature of Romney’s business, there will be more stories where these came from. The point is that Romney won’t have a clear path to running as an economy-saver and job-creator. Big business is as unpopular with voters as big government.
There is, of course, a case to be made for Romney as well. He is smart and accomplished, with a more varied practical background than Obama. From Bain to the Winter Olympics, he has turned around troubled financial entities before. To those who argue his business record isn’t applicable to politics, Romney could point to his success at balancing Massachusetts’ budget and getting unpopular cuts to local aid passed.
The strongest argument may be that the other Republican front-runners — Huckabee, Palin, Gingrich — have obvious flaws as well. Yet that may be an argument for something more radical, at least by Republican standards: abandon the hierarchal nomination habits and look far beyond the top tier. A major party presidential nomination during troubled times isn’t a retirement gift.
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