It looks as if it’s going to be Mitt Romney after all. With Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush endorsing the former Massachusetts governor last week, there aren’t any white knights left to play the role of GOP savior.
But that news hasn’t reached his competitors yet.
Psychoanalyzing the remaining contenders for why they are staying in the race is probably a fool’s errand. Ron Paul has never worked under the assumption he might be the nominee, never mind the next president. Newt Gingrich often seems like he wants to shake his fist heavenward shouting, “Curse you, historical dialectic! You promised it would be me!” And while Rick Santorum clearly thinks he still has a chance, his dyspeptic personality often makes it seem that, like a character out of Seinfeld, he’s staying in the race out of spite.
But Santorum says otherwise, and one of his core arguments is that the author of “Romneycare” — the Massachusetts health-care reform that was a precursor of sorts to “Obamacare,” at least according to Barack Obama and his supporters — is unfit to take on the president in the general election.
“Frankly, I think he will be destroyed by President Obama on this issue come the fall,” Santorum told CNN’s John King recently. “And it should be the biggest issue that helps us win this election. It will be turned into a negative under Mitt Romney.” Indeed, throughout the debate season, Santorum and others constantly insisted that Romney can’t attack Obamacare.
The funny thing is: Even as they were saying he can’t attack Obamacare, Romney was — you guessed it — attacking Obamacare. Romney has been attacking Obamacare since its inception. “I’ll stop it in its tracks on day one!” he promises constantly on the stump.
Throughout this primary season, the urge to sound like pundits has been strong with some of the candidates, particularly Santorum and Gingrich — probably because they were pundits before they got into the race. As a result, they’ve imported a style of argumentation better suited for high-school debate class. Yes, Romney might be inconsistent to attack Obamacare, at least on the mandate, but there’s no basis in reality to say he “can’t” attack it nonetheless.
Obama opposed the mandate vociferously when running against Hillary Rodham Clinton, but that didn’t stop him from fighting to make it the law of the land.
Moreover, the broader bipartisan assumption that Romney will be hurt by Romneycare in the general election is deeply flawed.
First of all, Obamacare is unpopular (a fact a lot of political coverage conveniently overlooks). That’s why Democrats don’t talk about it on the stump, and neither did Obama for a very long time — until the Supreme Court forced him to reacquire political ownership. If the Court upholds the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama is not going to want to remind voters of his responsibility for an unpopular piece of legislation. If the Court throws it out, Obama is not going to want to remind voters that his signature accomplishment — which distracted him from a bad economy and cost the Democrats the House — was so flawed that the court had to reject it. Either way, Obama will not be racing to talk about health care. But Romney will.
It’s often said that Obama will respond to Romney’s attacks by saying the mandate was based on Romneycare. Romney will respond, “Well, you did it wrong” and promise to repeal and replace the law. All the voters really need to know is that Romney is against Obamacare. Besides, Romney will have plenty of other lines of attack: the raid on Medicare, the rationing board, the tax hikes, the religious-liberty issues, the creation of a vast new entitlement when the existing ones are crushing us with debt, etc.
Core Republican voters will vote against Obama, not for Romney. Polls show GOPers are more enthusiastic about voting in 2012 than Democrats. Meanwhile, the independents and moderates who dislike Obamacare, but who are not libertarians, will most likely see Romneycare as evidence that Romney is not one of the right-wing crazies the Today show keeps warning them about.
Democrats are truly comfortable only when they’re attacking Republicans as “extremists” of one flavor or another. But over the weekend, Joe Biden tried attacking Romney for being too “flexible.” That might have bite coming from the right in the primaries, but it looks as if the primaries are over.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO.