Regular readers know that I’m not shy about criticizing Mitt Romney, particularly for his role in designing and enacting a health care program in Massuchusetts that served as a model for ObamaCare. Jim made some good points earlier about why it will be such a difficult political problem to overcome, and I agree. But the question I’d like to focus on is: what would have to happen for Romney to win the nomination despite the health care issue? The simple truth is that Romney will never win over skeptics, so his best hope is merely to survive the issue.
The closest parallel I can think of is the way John McCain was able to survive his immigration stance and multiple deviations from conservatism to capture the nomination in 2008. What basically happened was that McCain’s candidacy looked dead in the summer of 2007 when the immigration issue peaked, but then by fall the Petraeus-Crocker hearings started, and the debate shifted to Iraq — where McCain was much closer to GOP primary voters. When immigration came up, he said he learned his lesson that people wanted the borders secured first. At the same time, the rest of the field collapsed. Rudy totally imploded and Fred Thompson never took off. Mike Huckabee’s surge in Iowa was enough to weaken Romney, but not enough to gain him support beyond his core constituency. So, in the end, McCain survived.
There are a number of reasons why Romney is in a different boat this time around. In McCain’s case, once the immigration bill died, conservative intensity on the issue waned. However, ObamaCare already passed, and conservative outrage over it continues. Each time another court delivers a verdict on one of the legal challenges, it will bring back the issue of the individual mandate — and Romney’s long support for it in principle, even though the constitutional issues differ at the state level. The Tea Parties also weren’t around in 2008, and they won’t be a receptive audience for Romney’s defenses.
That said, Romney, like McCain, benefits from the fact that it’s a wide open field without a real frontrunner in which all the candidates have weaknesses. Let’s say Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin either don’t run, or are unable to appeal to a broad enough coalition of voters beyond their loyal fan base. That Haley Barbour’s lobbying background turns out to be as fatal as his critics suggest. That Newt Gingrich can’t overcome his personal baggage as well as his own deviations from conservatives. That Tim Pawlenty gets hammered for stuff he said and did when he had a profile as a moderate, and that he’s just unable to connect with people. And imagine that nobody else emerges. On top of that, let’s say the economy sinks deeper, and business experience becomes more valued by voters. All of the above scenarios are perfectly plausible. In such an environment, you can see how Romney can survive as the last man standing by vowing to repeal ObamaCare, even as most conservatives still find it difficult to forgive him. Keep in mind, too, that he’ll have enough money to remain in the race for as long as he needs to.
To be clear, I’m not predicting that this will happen, but only that this is what would have to happen for Romney to win, and it isn’t totally inconceivable.
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