In a recent column, Charles Krauthammer laments the undeniable reality that Obamacare is fading as an issue in the presidential campaign, and calls it "a huge failing of the opposition party." He points out that the Republican presidential candidates have all promised to repeal the Potemkin "reform" law, but asks if any have been "making the case for why?" This is a surprising question, coming from a man of Krauthammer's credentials and erudition. He obviously hasn't been listening as closely as one might have expected. Three of the four remaining Republican presidential candidates have indeed failed to give the issue the attention it merits. Rick Santorum, however, has been all over it.
Santorum has not merely explained why Obamacare must be repealed but has repeatedly declared it the most important issue of the campaign. In fact, he did so during the most recent GOP debate in Arizona, where he called it "the biggest issue in this race" and later went on to explain why: "The real fundamental issue here is government coercion." Likewise, during the Florida debate, he implored Republican primary voters not to "give this issue away in this election [by supporting Romney]. It is about fundamental freedom." And Santorum doesn't reserve such comments for big events with large television audiences. He delivers precisely the same message in the smallest of town hall meetings.
The reluctance of the other GOP candidates to follow suit is odd. It certainly can't be explained by the popularity of Obamacare. The latest Rasmussen survey shows 53 percent of likely voters favoring repeal while finding only 38 percent who oppose sending it to the death panel. A CNN poll indicates that half of all Americans oppose the latest of Obamacare's assaults on individual liberty -- the anti-conscience mandate -- and Gallup finds that nearly half of America's small businesses are deliberately not hiring new workers because of worries "about the potential cost of health care." And yet Santorum continues to be the only Republican presidential candidate left who has made Obamacare's repeal central to his campaign.
Santorum's willingness to engage the enemy on health care is easier to explain than is the reticence of his rivals. He is well suited for the Obamacare debate for a couple of reasons. First, unlike his primary competitor, Mitt Romney, he's a genuine conservative. Thus, he actually understands that it constitutes a very serious threat to individual freedom, and this conviction has no doubt been reinforced by the Obama administration's recent assault on the religious freedom of those who share his faith. Second, he clearly understands health care in a way that the others, including the egregious Dr. Paul, do not. Santorum has done his homework on the issue and talks about its nuances with a fluency that eludes his competitors.
I recently wrote about a demonstration of this fluency that occurred at a town hall meeting held on the campus of Dordt College. After Santorum had outlined his objections to Obamacare, a student blindsided him with a 2009 "study" purporting to show that "50 to 100,000 uninsured Americans" die every year for lack of health insurance. This study, though notorious among health policy wonks for its dubious methodology, is relatively obscure. The likelihood is remote that an advisor-dependent candidate like Mitt Romney would have been aware of its existence. Santorum, however, immediately rejected its tendentious conclusions in terms that made it obvious he was familiar with the study and the biases of its authors.
And Santorum's grasp of health care isn't limited to familiarity with bogus studies. Aware that countless surveys have shown lower cost and greater access to be the main things Americans wanted from health reform, Santorum constantly reminds his audiences of Obamacare provisions that will increase the price of care while reducing its availability. The February speech he delivered in Rochester, Minnesota, was typical. During that event, he explained how "benefits" like the elimination of lifetime and annual caps from health plans and guaranteed issue of medical coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions have already driven up costs in states like Massachusetts without improving access a whit.
So, Krauthammer's query should be reframed thus: Why is Santorum the only GOP candidate "making the case for why" Obamacare must be repealed? Is Santorum alone among the four in believing it can actually be done? Perhaps the pledges issued by the others amount to nothing more than perfunctory rhetoric meant to mollify the Tea Partiers. Maybe they think it's too late and are merely shamming their commitment to repeal. This would explain some of the signals we have seen coming from the Romney camp. Recently, one of Romney's closest advisers said, "You can't whole-cloth throw it out." And this lines up with comments Romney himself has made about keeping the "good" parts of Obamacare while we "repeal the bad."
This is little more than what the Democrats have promised to do. It's obvious, of course, why Romney tap-dances around the issue. He, as Santorum put it in last week's debate, "used federal dollars to fund the government takeover of health care in Massachusetts." The reserve of Gingrich and Paul is harder to explain. The sporadic attention the former devotes to Obamacare can perhaps be put down to his ad hoc campaign style, but the latter's refusal to address it is utterly inexplicable. As a physician and ostensible libertarian, Ron Paul is the candidate one would expect to be screaming his head off. Instead of hammering Obamacare, however, he has spent nearly $30 million attacking conservative challengers to Romney.
Whether this "huge failing of the opposition" is due to a lack of genuine commitment to repeal or not, it certainly plays into Obama's hands. As Grace-Marie Turner wrote last September, "The White House is quietly implementing a shrewd new strategy of silence on Obamacare." And the "news" media, having joined the administration's effort to activate this "Cone of Silence," rarely cover Santorum's comments on the subject unless they can find a way to misrepresent his position as hopelessly doctrinaire and irrational. Politico, for example, began its report on his Rochester speech as follows: "How much does Rick Santorum hate President Barack Obama's health care law? So much that he even opposes the parts a lot of Republicans like."
Thus, Santorum is a veritable voice crying in the wilderness about what Krauthammer calls Obamacare's "constitutional trifecta." Meanwhile, the other GOP presidential candidates confine their opposition to sporadic and formulaic calls for repeal that not only lack passion but cause one to wonder if they are merely faking it for the cameras.