What Mitt was supposed to be

How his own party -- and President Obama -- left Romney with nothing to say about his biggest Massachusetts feat

Published September 27, 2012 12:21PM (EDT)

If Mitt Romney does end up losing, there will be plenty of explanations available, including the simple fact that economic conditions this year have been more conducive to President Obama’s reelection than many people realize.

But high on the list will also be the fact that, besides reciting various gloomy statistics about unemployment and the federal deficit over and over again, Romney was left with almost nothing to say. His party, and the way it chose to react to Obama’s election four years ago, is the main reason for this – and no issue better illustrates this than healthcare.

Romney was asked in an interview by NBC’s Ron Allen yesterday about his perceived inability to empathize with struggling middle-class Americans. There are serious problems for the GOP nominee on this front. A poll in Ohio shows that just 38 percent of voters there say he cares about their needs and problems; for Obama, the number is 57 percent. And 58 percent say Romney’s policies as president would favor the rich; the number is only 8 percent for Obama. Given a chance to reassure these voters, Romney told Allen:

"I think throughout this campaign as well, we talked about my record in Massachusetts, don't forget -- I got everybody in my state insured. One hundred percent of the kids in our state had health insurance. I don't think there's anything that shows more empathy and care about the people of this country than that kind of record."

That’s right: He bragged about RomneyCare, the universal coverage program he implemented as governor Massachusetts and that served as the blueprint for Obama’s national program. And not for the first time in recent days. At a Univision forum last week, Romney volunteered that, “Now and then the president says I'm the grandfather of Obamacare. I don't think he meant that as a compliment but I'll take it.”

Outbursts of pride like this have been notably rare, and for obvious reasons. When Obama was elected president, Romney’s party settled on a strategy of reflexive, unanimous and unyielding opposition to just about every major initiative by the new president. It didn’t matter if Obama reached out to the GOP or incorporated Republican ideas into his proposals; the GOP was intent on framing his agenda as nothing but a Big Government threat to freedom and prosperity.

Among other things, this meant railing against a healthcare plan that was inspired by Romney’s law – which in turn was inspired by the healthcare reform vision pushed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and many Capitol Hill Republicans in the early 1990s. This compelled Romney to play along, rail against Obamacare, and vow to undo it as president. It also forced him to assume a defensive crouch whenever he talked about his own Massachusetts law; his main imperative became fabricating a bunch of supposedly major, crucial distinctions between RomneyCare and Obamacare. The absurdity of that task gave Romney an incentive to simply avoid the whole subject, and when he and his campaign have tried to tout it as an asset, the opprobrium from the right has been intense.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way at all. Romney began making moves toward a White House run nearly a decade ago, shifting away from his moderate Massachusetts roots and positioning himself to meet the national GOP’s various ideological tests. The Massachusetts healthcare law was to play a key role in this self-reinvention. It would give Romney a major bipartisan gubernatorial achievement, burnish his credentials as a forward-looking leader (and not just a simple pandered), and give him a huge general election asset – a universal coverage law that he could use to deflate the inevitable Democratic attacks about his lack of compassion and to stir hope among voters that he knew how to accomplish Big Things.  When Romney signed the law in April 2006, he basked in widespread national praise, like this from David Broder:

This is a rare and exotic political hybrid, with a basis in a conservative think tank and the blessing of a Democratic legislature and Sen. Ted Kennedy. The passage of such a program with overwhelming bipartisan support is a notable achievement in a time of polarized, partisan politics.

Back then, Romney had no qualms about bragging about RomneyCare, and few Republicans so much as blinked when he did so. And had Obama embraced a different (i.e., one not rooted in the individual mandate concept) healthcare plan, Romney would be relentlessly touting his Massachusetts law now, claiming either that it would be a massive improvement over the boondoggle Obama had implemented or (if in this alternate history Obama’s plan had died in Congress) that he knew precisely how to succeed where the president had failed. Either way, it would have been a central element of Romney’s campaign, a perfect talking point for general election audiences, and one conservatives wouldn’t have minded at all.

But when Obama embraced RomneyCare and the GOP embraced reflexive opposition, it left Romney with nothing to say. The best he can do is occasionally invoke his main gubernatorial feat in interviews like he did with Allen and hope there’s not any immediate backlash from his base. And even if there isn’t, it just reinforces his plight, with the media covering not the content of his remarks but the oddity of it all.

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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