Over the past several weeks, political observers have speculated about how passage of the national health care law modeled after the one Mitt Romney signed in Massachusetts could hurt his presidential ambitions. But more significant for conservatives is how Romney's presidential ambitions could stymie the effort to repeal ObamaCare.
As it is, achieving a full repeal of the recently-passed health care law will be extremely difficult. Given that Obama would veto any bill to undo his signature legislative accomplishment, it means that to get rid of the law, Republicans will have to not only take back Congress, but capture the White House. It also means that conservatives will have to relentlessly campaign against ObamaCare during the next two elections and keep public outrage at an elevated level for at least the next three years. And even if they achieve all of this, they will have a short window to repeal the bill in 2013, because by 2014 the federal government will begin to dole out hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies, which will create a whole new constituency to preserve the law.
If Romney were the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, it would make this already challenging fight even harder. Romney's role in creating a health care program quite similar to the one that just passed nationally would allow Obama to neutralize the issue during an election that would otherwise be a prime opportunity to make the case for repeal.
The health care program Romney enacted as governor has the same basic architecture as the national health care law President Obama signed last month. Both programs rely on mandating that individuals purchase insurance and they provide government subsidies to people to buy government-designed insurance policies on a government-run exchange.
Jonathan Gruber, the MIT 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 [with the passage of the new federal law], it's Mitt Romney... He designed the structure of the federal bill."
Romney and his loyal backers have tested a number of arguments in an attempt to distinguish RomneyCare from ObamaCare. For instance, they have tried to argue that the Massachusetts plan was made worse by the state's heavily Democratic legislature, over Romney's objections. But Romney signed the bill in 2006 anyway, with Ted Kennedy at his side, and did so knowing that he would not be seeking reelection as governor and that the law would almost definitely be implemented by a Democratic successor.
Romneyites also argue that his was a state-based reform effort, rather than a one-size fits all federal approach. While this is true, it's also true that 20 percent of the cost of RomneyCare is being paid by federal taxpayers as a result of its Medicaid expansion.
Even if one believes that there are genuine policy differences between the two programs, from a pure political perspective, there are clearly enough similarities for Obama to exploit over the course of a general election.
One need look no further than President Bush's 2004 reelection bid to see how such a strategy could play out. Though the Iraq war was growing increasingly unpopular at the time, the fact that John Kerry voted for the war resolution made it difficult for Democrats to present a clear contrast on the issue, and this allowed President Bush to muddy the waters. Likewise, if Romney tries to attack Obama on the national health care law, Democrats could counter that Romney was for it before he was against it. Partisan Republicans may scramble to explain the differences, but such distinctions would likely get blurred in the minds of the typical voters. In the end, the GOP wouldn't have a clean shot at ObamaCare.
This would have repercussions down ballot as well. For instance, any attacks Republican candidates might want to make against the individual mandate would be blunted if the party nominated somebody who is on record declaring, "I like mandates."
The White House understands this, and it's no surprise that Obama has been drawing parallels between the new law and the Massachusetts system at every opportunity.
"You know, you've got a former governor of Massachusetts who's running around saying 'What's this health reform bill?'" Obama joked at recent fundraiser in Boston. "And I keep on scratching my head and I say, boy, this Massachusetts thing, who designed that?"
In an interview with CBS, Obama got a little ahead of himself, and said that the Democrats' legislation was "the sort of plan proposed by current Republican nominee Mitt Romney."
Romney's response hasn't engendered much confidence that he'd be able to lead an effective campaign against ObamaCare.
"(Obama is) saying that I was the guy that came up with the idea for what he did," Romney said at a recent appearance in New Hampshire, according to the New York Times. "If ever again somewhere down the road I would be debating him, I would be happy to take credit for his accomplishment."
Romney's Free and Strong America PAC recently announced a "Prescription for Repeal" initiative to contribute to conservative candidates. But the language leaves a lot of wiggle room. The press release announcing the program says the PAC will support candidates who vow to support a repeal of "the worst aspects of Obamacare." But it doesn't define which aspects Romney considers "the worst" and which ones he finds acceptable. This is no trivial matter given that Romney has repeatedly defended the individual mandate on conservative grounds.
Just as John McCain was able to win the Republican nomination in 2008 despite his problems with the conservative base, Romney may be able to overcome his health care record in the primaries. And perhaps there are circumstances under which he could beat Obama by emphasizing economic and foreign policy issues. But win or lose, Romney would not be able to credibly campaign against the national health care law. And as a result, were he the Republican nominee, it would kill the movement to repeal ObamaCare.
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