When friends ask me what I think of the 2012 presidential race, I have a line for them. I tell them it’s shaping up as the meeting of a stoppable force and a movable object. That is, there are few plausible scenarios in which a sitting president who has bankrupted the country only to deliver economic anemia—the president of Obamacare and Occupy Wall Street, stimulus and Solyndra—could find the electoral votes to realize a second term. And yet none among the Republican field have inspired confidence that they are the man (or woman) to beat him. Many have raised as many questions as they have answered about their policy know-how, political acumen, or both. And then there is Mitt Romney.
He started the race with sizable financial and organizational advantages over all comers, and built-in support in crucial early primary states. He quietly competes even in Iowa, despite a carefully cultivated front of indifference there. He has watched, largely unscathed, as his opponents attack each other into oblivion in thus-far-unsuccessful attempts to emerge as the consensus alternative. In a party that, for good and for ill, selects presidential candidates based in large part on “whose turn it is,” Romney has had every incentive to stand pat, running a safe campaign based on comfortable platitudes and gaffe minimization. Indeed, we’ve seen him peeking ahead at the general even as the primary gets more competitive, whether it’s wavering on support for a right to work measure in bellwether Ohio or hedging on a debate question on immigration.
All of this makes Romney’s plan for entitlement reform a most pleasant surprise. Here are the editors, today:
Most significant, Romney outlined a plan that would transform Medicare into a premium-support program — while holding current seniors and near-retirees harmless, and retaining an optional form of traditional Medicare (restructured as a premium-charging government insurance plan) to smooth the transition. It differs in details from the plan introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan and supported by the overwhelming majority of congressional Republicans, but the plans share their most critical features: reintroducing choice to seniors and competition to the health-insurance market while defusing the fiscal time bomb that is Medicare before it beggars the nation. In his speech, Romney also vowed to introduce forms of means testing to both Medicare and Social Security, while gently raising the eligibility age of the latter. All of this — as well as his promises to block-grant Medicaid to the states and institute real cuts in discretionary spending — deserves praise.
Romney’s buy-in on entitlement reform puts the center of gravity of the Republican field in more or less the right place on the most momentous issue of the day. Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich have embraced premium support in broad outline. Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman have endorsed the Ryan plan explicitly. And though she has since been equivocal, Michele Bachmann voted for it. (Only Herman Cain remains difficult to pin down, though he did signal support for Medicaid block-granting in a recent debate with Newt Gingrich.)
It’s as sound policy-wise as it is politically risky. For that reason, I’m not sure it won’t turn out to be a tactical mistake for Romney should he become the nominee. But if it’s a mistake, it’s a — gasp — principled one.