The GOP race and the power of irrational thinking

Why the Obama-loathing Republican Party might just nominate ... the man who inspired "ObamaCare"

Published September 28, 2011 8:11PM (EDT)

Rick Perry and Mitt Romney  (Reuters/Scott Audette)
Rick Perry and Mitt Romney (Reuters/Scott Audette)

The fact that Rick Perry has been enduring a bad-to-terrible few weeks means that Mitt Romney has been enjoying a good-to-great few weeks. When Perry burst into the race last month and immediately surged to the head of the GOP pack, there was a strong sense in the political world that Mitt's jig might finally be up. But now conventional wisdom is rapidly swinging back Romney's way.  A new poll from Iowa even shows Romney back in first place -- and Perry running in third, a point behind Michele Bachmann.

Romney's durability is prompting some understandable confusion. For more than a year now, we've heard that his Massachusetts healthcare law -- which included an individual mandate and which served as the blueprint for "ObamaCare," and for which Romney refuses to apologize -- makes him absolute poison to the Obama-era GOP. And it's not like healthcare is his only sin; Ever since he started running for president five years ago, Romney's awkward attempts to shuck off the cultural liberalism he embraced in Massachusetts have made him ideologically suspect to the right. What Romney represents and where the Republican Party of 2011/2012 seems like the very definition of a bad match.

And yet he's surviving -- and it really shouldn't be all that surprising. Romney's endurance serves as a fine illustration of how fundamentally illogical public opinion really is, and to the backward-working way that most people actually form their opinions.

I wrote about this back in the spring, when Romney's healthcare "problem" forced him to deliver a major address on his Massachusetts law. The result was pure gobbledygook, with Romney simultaneously defending his law while decrying Obama's as a jobs-and-freedom-killing that would bankrupt the country if it wasn't immediately repealed -- a nonsensical argument, given how similar the two laws are. Conventional wisdom held that Republicans, who had elevated ObamaCare to the top of their list of grievances with the president, would see right through this and turn away from Romney in droves. But months later, they still haven't.

Logically, this shouldn't be the case, but that's just the point: Logic really has little to do with the right's ferocious opposition to Obama's presidency. Take healthcare. Sure, some intellectual conservatives scrutinized Obama's plan and came up with detailed, specific objections to it, but the bulk of Republican leaders, activists and voters opposed it for one simple reason: It had Barack Obama's name on it -- and the GOP was committed from the moment Obama was elected to regard every major presidential proposal as an assault on capitalism, freedom and the American way. That this was the GOP's posture was hardly a surprise; it's just how conservatives react to Democratic presidents in our modern era of ideologically cohesive political parties.

This meant that the right decided immediately to oppose Obama's healthcare push, then worked backward to find reasons why (with rank-and-file Republicans taking their cues from opinion-shaping elected officials, activists, and media personalities). The result was that Republicans ended up decrying a policy idea, the individual mandate, with deep conservative roots -- one that had once been more popular on the right than on the left. And beyond the mandate, the details of ObamaCare (like the fact that it was structured to strengthen private insurers and to reduce the deficit) really didn't matter to them: They wanted it to be a massive, job-destroying, socialistic takeover of one-sixth of the economy, so that's how they treated it.

This has made Romney's task almost easy. All he's needed to do is be as opposed to and enraged by ObamaCare as every other Republican, and then offer Republicans a good rationalization. Which is what his gobbledygook achieves. Romney's basic line is that as president he'll immediately give states waivers to opt out of ObamaCare until it can be fully repealed -- that takes care of the ObamaCare opposition. Then there's the basic rationalization for Republicans to parrot: His Massachusetts law was for that state only (no matter what he once wrote), it was an experiment, he learned from it, it didn't raise taxes, it didn't add to the deficit, and it's not the economy-wrecking monstrosity that is Obama's program.

Again, what Romney has actually said on this subject is mostly nonsense, but it puts Republicans in position to shrug off concerns about his healthcare problem -- if they want to. And the same is true on other issues. The unifying purpose in just about everything Romney has said in this campaign has been to show Republicans that he's on their team -- that he's just as devoted to tearing down Obama as they are. That alone isn't enough to guarantee him the nomination, but it has been enough to keep him viable. And now, with Perry showing some alarming traits as a candidate (and addressing his own breaches with conservative orthodoxy far less smoothly than Romney), Romney is in position to benefit from backward-working decision-making: If Republicans conclude he's their best (or only) bet, they can now rationalize their way to supporting him, however reluctantly. He's given them the tools they need to do it.

I've been judging Romney's progress by what I'm calling the "Hannity Test": If and when we start hearing elite Republican opinion-shapers echo his healthcare rationalization, we'll know he's on his way to the nomination. We're not there yet, but just today a top conservative pundit opined that Perry's problems with the GOP base on immigration are far worse than Romney's are on healthcare. For Romney, that's a pretty good start.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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