Those so inclined can think of advantages accruing to Mitt Romney should he attempt another go at the presidency. For example: Unlike his potential opponents, he has been through this before, and his political and personal history, from his Massachusetts governorship to his leadership at Bain Capital, have already been picked through, exposed, and exploited — so surprises are improbable. Unlike his potential opponents, he knows exactly what a long, grinding national campaign is like — so he can prepare accordingly. And unlike his potential opponents, he has the fruits of his 2012 vice-presidential vetting process at his disposal — so he has leverage.
But if 2016 sees the return of Mitt Romney, expect the return, too, of another name: Jonathan Gruber. And that will be, for Romney, a serious disadvantage.
In his new book, America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System, journalist Steven Brill chronicles the years-long process that led to Obamacare and notes the central role its architect had earlier played in developing “Romneycare.” In 2005, writes Brill, aides to the first-term Republican governor of Massachusetts were calling the hotshot MIT economist to ask for help with a possible “market-based health-care reform program.” The politician and the professor hit it off; Gruber later told Brill that Romney seemed to him “the perfect public servant.” Together, the pair charted out a three-pronged health-care plan that prohibited insurance companies from screening people for preexisting conditions, provided government subsidies to those who could not afford insurance, and established an individual mandate. At the April 2006 Romneycare signing celebration, held at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Romney noted that Gruber’s econometric model was “essential” to the legislation’s success. Three years later, the Obama administration would draw on Romneycare, and its key economist, for its own plan.
That personnel link did not, of course, go unnoticed during the last presidential cycle. In March 2011, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post speculated that Gruber might prove “the death knell of the Romney candidacy.” A year later, in April 2012, Romney having by then nearly wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination, the Obama reelection team featured Gruber prominently in an online video: “I helped Governor Romney develop his health-care reform, or ‘Romneycare,’ before going down to Washington to help President Obama develop his national version of that law,” says Gruber in the three-minute spot. “The core of the Affordable Care Act, or ‘Obamacare,’ and what we did in Massachusetts are identical.” No doubt that connection would be readily drawn next year, too.
But in 2016, Romney’s well-documented link to Gruber would be particularly poisonous. In 2012, Jonathan Gruber was a wunderkind economist and much-feted health-care guru who had been heavily involved in the premier health-care reform efforts of the last decade. But in 2015, he is to many the embodiment of the smug, smarter-than-thou superciliousness that, since January 2009, has seemed to emanate from this particular White House. His casual admission that Obamacare was written in a “tortured” way to game the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring process — and that “the stupidity of the American voter” was crucial to passing the bill — seemed to confirm widespread suspicions that the Obama administration has no compunction about deceiving the masses whenever it proves expedient.
The facts that the deception practiced by Gruber and his White House associates long postdated his affiliation with Romney, and that there is no evidence that anything similar afflicted Romneycare, are unlikely to matter much in what could well be a fiercely contested Republican primary. Gruber remains a Romney connection, and what in 2012 was merely the unpleasant task of explaining away Romney’s link with the president’s health-care plan — some egghead consultant, what’s-his-name, at MIT — is now the forbidding task of explaining away his link with the incarnation of liberal arrogance.
But the problem is not Gruber’s toxicity alone; it is also that Romney would be the only candidate on the debate stage required to defend that unsavory tie. For primary voters looking for a “fresh,” “forward-looking” nominee, the sole candidate linked to Obama’s primary health-care consultant would hardly be an appealing choice.
Of course, this new iteration of the Romney–Gruber link would reveal nothing about a Candidate Romney’s principles or proposals, which, in a more just world, would be the main focus of voters’ and commentators’ attention. But it does present a uniquely difficult political problem for a potential Romney candidacy — and raises even more acutely the question of whether Mitt Romney would serve his party best in 2016 by staying on the sidelines.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. fellow at National Review.