In one way, his defeat will actually improve his place in history
Mitt Romney’s political career began in late 1993, when he put out the word that he wanted to run for Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. It ended last night, nearly 20 years later, with a resounding Electoral College defeat at the hands of President Obama. Like Wendell Willkie, Adlai Stevenson, Bob Dole and all of the other White House runners-up, Romney will now become an answer to a trivia question. But in a backward way, his defeat could actually enhance his legacy.
The reason has to do with Obama’s signature first-term achievement. The future of the Affordable Care Act, which will expand access to health insurance to tens of millions of Americans once all of its provisions are in place, was very much in doubt until last night. Romney had vowed to dismantle the law, but now that he won’t be in the White House, implementation can proceed as scheduled. By the end of Obama’s presidency, the ACA will be more or less integrated into the safety net, its basic principles impervious to a partisan shift in Washington. Healthcare policy will evolve in the years and decades ahead, but Tuesday’s result preserves a major step toward universal coverage.
And for this we can thank … Mitt Romney.
It has nothing to do with the campaign he just ran, of course. But the ACA as we know it only exists because Romney helped create the blueprint for it back in his Massachusetts days. And, ironically enough, he helped create that blueprint because he thought it would help him win the presidency.
The Romney who signed the Bay State’s universal healthcare law in the spring of 2006 had largely given up on being governor. He’d been elected on a moderate/good government platform in 2002, but 2004 had forced a reckoning. He poured serious money, effort and political capital into an ambitious effort to increase the GOP’s presence in the state legislature that year, only to see his party lose ground. There was also the matter of gay marriage, which officially became legal in Massachusetts that spring; to curry favor with the religious conservatives he’d need in order to win the GOP presidential nomination someday, Romney would have to fight to repeal it – which would only make it tougher for him to win a second gubernatorial term in 2006.
And so Romney disengaged from his day job. In the second half of his gubernatorial term, he spent all or parts of hundreds of days out of the state, courting Republican leaders and activists in Iowa, South Carolina and other key primary and caucus states. He also repositioned himself on the political spectrum, renouncing his pro-choice views and recasting himself as the Sheriff Joe of the East. The 2008 opening on the GOP side, he concluded, was to the right of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, and he moved aggressively to seize it.
Signing the healthcare bill that made it out of the Massachusetts legislature in early ’06 seemed consistent with this task. The bill was rooted in a conservative policy proposal from the late 1980s, which envisioned achieving universal healthcare access through an individual mandate. Republicans in the U.S. Senate had latched on to the concept during the Clinton years, as an alternative to the plan drafted by Hillary Clinton. With a representative from the Heritage Foundation at his side, Romney signed the law in an elaborate ceremony. It was, he and his team believed, a powerful political tool – one that would earn him plaudits from the press and policy experts while elevating his standing with conservatives, who would appreciate his ability to apply their values to an issue on which Democrats had long enjoyed an advantage.
RomneyCare didn’t end up propelling him to the nomination in ’08, but it also wasn’t the reason Romney fell short. The speedy and convenient nature of his conversion on cultural issues was the main culprit, engendering profound suspicion on the Christian right. It wasn’t until well after the ’08 race that Romney’s Massachusetts law became toxic within the Republican Party. The reason for this was simple: because Obama embraced it as the model for his own program. From the minute he was elected, resistance to and resentment of Obama became the main motivating force among conservatives. His governing instincts were (and are) pragmatic and incrementalist, but to the right virtually everything he proposed was an assault on freedom and a step toward socialism. And nothing brought out the venom quite like the ACA.
To have any chance of securing this year’s GOP nod, Romney had no choice but to rail against what amounted to the national realization of his Massachusetts blueprint. He pretended there were major differences between the laws, but his words amounted to gobbledygook. RomneyCare and ObamaCare, as the architect of both programs put it, are “the same fucking bill.” But it wasn’t really the details of the ACA that enraged conservatives; it was its association with Obama. So Romney was able to get away with it – at least in the GOP primaries.
As a general election issue, though, ACA repeal never seemed to catch on for Romney. In part, this was because of the Supreme Court’s decision in June to uphold the mandate, a ruling that took some of the wind out of the opposition’s sails. Still, Romney insisted to the end that his first act as president would be to gut ObamaCare – to do away with a major addition to the safety net that he as much as anyone was responsible for.
But because Romney lost, ObamaCare will live on. History will record that the country finally moved toward universal coverage during the Obama presidency – and that the idea for it came from the man Obama defeated in 2012.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
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