If you were reading the National Review — which had a soft spot for Mitt — I can see why you would have that impression, but the reality is a lot more complicated.
For starters, there were a lot of conservatives who did raise issues about his health care plan, and we published a lot of them here at the Spectator. I was a frequent critic of both Romney and his health care plan, as was Dave Hogberg, who devoted a column to the issue in 2007 called “Mitt’s Biggest Flop.” The Club for Growth, in its evaluation of Romney’s record during the primaries, blasted RomneyCare, writing, “Commonwealth Care is a far cry from free-market healthcare. Besides the individual and employer mandates, the program expands Medicaid, does not deregulate enough, and will likely cost more than the current system…”
That said, I will agree with Chait that the Massachusetts health care plan did not hurt Romney as much as it should have, and there are a number of reasons why. For one thing, despite the impression given by Chait, Romney didn’t run on his health care plan. He spent much of the primaries distancing himself from the plan by saying the liberal legislature ruined it, or that it worked well for Massachusetts, but he wasn’t proposing it at the national level. Toward the end, he did begin to defend the mandates, but that doesn’t mean that conservatives, by in large, were “fine” with his mandates. What happened was that the 2008 GOP field was deeply flawed, with no one candidate appealing to all constituencies of the conservative movement. Rudy Giuliani was unacceptable to social conservatives, Mike Huckabee was unacceptable to economic conservatives, and Fred Thompson, despite the initial fanfare, proved too lazy as a candidate. So, by the end of the campaign, you had a lot of conservatives rally around Romney as the best chance to stop John McCain, not because they were particularly fond of him. During a debate around this time, Romney defended health insurance mandates as conservative, and I asked while liveblogging, “Okay if conservatives have many problems with McCain, but seriously, are economic conservatives ready to rally around a candidate who believes that it is conservative to force individuals to purchase health insurance or face fines?”
There is another reason that Romney didn’t generate more criticism among conservatives for his health care plan in 2008 — most of the attention in the Republican primaries was on national security, social issues, taxes and immigration, because they were seen as more pressing at the time. And unfortunately, health care was viewed as a liberal issue, and conservative voters weren’t overly concerned with the candidates’ stances. So, during Romney’s typical campaign stump speech, he’d talk about how he’s an economic, social issues, and national security conservative; blast other candidates for being insufficiently conservative; talk about his management/economic expertise; and then, maybe, have a throwaway line like, “In Massachusetts, we found a way to insure everybody with a free market approach…” And a lot of people who didn’t take time to study the details of his plan, gave him the benefit of the doubt. Others argued that he did the best he could in liberal Massachusetts. But what happened in 2009 was that conservatives became a lot more interested in health care policy, and a lot more aware of what Obama was proposing and how closely it resembled what Romney did in Massachusetts. And so that’s why he’s facing a lot more grief for it than he did in 2008. That said, he could still win the nomination in 2012 in a weak field — as McCain did in 2008 in spite of immigration, campaign finance reform, voting against the Bush tax cuts, and a number of other deviations from conservatism.