Many Republicans fear that the lengthy fight for their party’s presidential nomination has inflicted serious if not irreparable harm on Mitt Romney, the man whom nearly everyone thinks will be the Republican candidate in November.
They are only half-right.
The primaries have inflicted harm on the Republican party and Mitt Romney’s chances—but not because they have been long or especially bitter. The harm has come because the primaries have been fought over the wrong issues—or, often, no issues at all. And one issue, Romney’s ability to run against Obamacare, has hardly been touched.
The race for the Republican nomination in 2000, largely fought between George W. Bush and John McCain, was perhaps even more bitter than this year’s contest. By the time Super Tuesday came around—on March 7, 2000—conservative and GOP leaders were fretting that McCain would “destroy the party,” as Rush Limbaugh put it. Bush, of course, went on to win the general election.
The problem with this year’s nomination contest is that it has not tested the weakness of the front-runner. The best primary fights can be divisive, acrimonious and long-fought—in fact, the harder the struggle, the better.
A tough fight can demonstrate that the candidate who eventually wins can stand up to the worst his opponents can dish out. He demonstrates to his own party that he is made of the stuff presidents must be made of to succeed. That he has the iron and fire it takes to win.
Where this year’s Republican primary has failed has been on the matter of the Obama administration’s health-care reform. “Obamacare” was a key issue in turning out Republican voters in 2010 and remains high on the list of priorities of Republicans. Any candidate who cannot credibly challenge Obamacare is giving up an important field of battle in the general election.
In truth, Obamacare may not be the most important issue facing America. The still-staggering economy and a once-again boiling conflict in the Middle East cauldron may prove more important. But a Republican trying to win against Barack Obama without being able to run against Obamacare is like a football team trying to win the Super Bowl without a field-goal kicker. Technically possible but highly unlikely. Sometimes getting a couple more points on the board is the difference between winning and losing.
We’ve long known that Romney might have difficulty credibly challenging Obamacare. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed into law a statewide individual mandate that required everyone to purchase insurance. His defenders point out that the nationwide mandate in Obamacare is different, because it doesn’t respect federalism and states' rights.
That’s always been a bit of a dodge, because the objection to the individual mandate among Republican voters has not really ever been about states' rights. It’s been about individual rights—whether the government should require the purchase of health insurance.
But it’s been a dodge that Romney has largely gotten away with, because his Republican rivals haven’t pressed it as a major issue.
It took Andrew Kaczynski, a journalist from Buzzfeed, to reveal that the federalism defense of Romneycare doesn’t hold water. He pointed out that in 2009, Romney wrote an op-ed in USA Today advocating an individual mandate as part of nationwide reform.
Romney’s 2009 op-ed does not endorse all aspects of Obamacare. He can credibly claim that he has been a long and vocal critic of the president’s plan. His op-ed implores Obama to drop the “public option”—the idea of a government-provided insurance plan—which the administration eventually did.
But on the hot-button issue of the individual mandate, it’s hard to see a dime’s worth of difference between Obama and Romney.
Can Romney still find a way to credibly run against Obamacare? Can he show that his individual mandate was different from Obama’s?
The answers to these questions should have arisen from the Republican primaries. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum should have raised them at every opportunity. But they didn’t—and so we don’t know whether the issue of the individual mandate has been lost to the Republicans.
The Romney campaign insists that federalism is the important issue in health care. But that’s not what voters think. When it comes to votes, if you cannot run against the individual mandate, you cannot really run against Obamacare at all. You’ve given up that field goal.
This is the real disaster of the Republican primary. No matter what happens on Super Tuesday, the party still won’t know whether they have a candidate prepared for the far longer, far tougher campaign against Obama.
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