What Romney Left Behind

One of the common misconceptions about the presidential candidate version of Mitt Romney is that he disavowed his greatest achievement in public office, health care reform, in an attempt to appeal to his party's base. The truth is that he never actually disavowed it or said it was a failure or a mistake. What he did was tell primary voters that Romneycare was really nothing at all like Obamacare, and anyway Romneycare shouldn't be tried in any other state. His comments were utterly unconvincing, but since they were always accompanied by a thunderous denunciation of Obamacare, Republican voters were assuaged enough to let it slide.

Which means that had he wanted to, Romney probably could have entered the general election making a positive case on health care beyond "Repeal Obamacare!" By continuing to maintain that Romneycare was in fact a good thing when he was challenged on it (even if he didn't want to talk about it all that much), he gave himself enough rhetorical room that he could now be using the issue to show voters that he's both competent and compassionate, that he successfully tackled a difficult policy problem in a way that improved people's lives. Instead, his entire case for competence is that he got really rich in private equity, and his entire case for compassion is that his wife seems nice.

As Charles Pierce explains, he could even use the issue to portray himself as someone who can get past Washington partisanship:

Mitt Romney would be well within his rights to assert that he had this idea first, and that he'd managed to get it passed without the kind of political bloodletting occasioned by the president's efforts. There was no uprising in Massachusetts over the individual mandate, no howling about "death panels." A popular bipartisan solution was devised to a vexing social problem, and Romney would be justified fully in basing his campaign purely on the fact that, in an era of gridlock and paralysis, he could get something like health-care reform done.

Pierce tells his own story (he has a pre-existing condition that might have made him uninsurable in any state other than Massachusetts) and reminds us of how thousands of people there have been helped, and in many cases literally saved, because of what Mitt Romney did. But Romney won't talk about it even now, despite the fact that the pivot from what he said during the primaries really wouldn't have been that hard to make. And here's a partial clue why:

Mitt Romney's campaign has concluded that the 2012 election will not be decided by elusive, much-targeted undecided voters — but by the motivated partisans of the Republican base.

This shifting campaign calculus has produced a split in Romney's message. His talk show interviews and big ad buys continue to offer a straightforward economic focus aimed at traditional undecided voters. But out stumping day to day is a candidate who wants to talk about patriotism and God, and who is increasingly looking to connect with the right's intense, personal dislike for President Barack Obama.

You can characterize this as a new strategic turn, but it seems to me that the Romney campaign has never been about independent voters, not for a minute. My theory about why is that for five years, nearly every waking moment of Mitt Romney's life was devoted to the conservative base—massaging them, figuring out what makes them happy and what makes them angry, determining who they wanted to be their candidate, and trying, trying, trying to be that person. After working so hard at it for so long, he just can't stop, and he and everyone around him are convinced that it's the only way to win.

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