Don't Count Romney Out Yet.

Mitt Romney is in a bit of a pickle. The Democrats just passed a health-care reform bill that all Republicans agree will transform America into a freedomless hellscape. Yet it's almost identical to the one Romney pushed through in Massachusetts when he was governor. He's even on record defending the individual mandate, which is the least popular part of the reform, and therefore the one on which Republicans are hanging their attack. From the standpoint of today, it looks like the 2012 GOP primary may be fought on the ground of who hates "Obamacare" the most, an argument that Romney can't possibly win. Not that he won't try -- when it was passed, he issued a statement calling it "an unconscionable abuse of power" (how dare the Democrats pass legislation!) and said, "President Obama has betrayed his oath to the nation."

This has led some to assume that there's no way Romney can win the Republican nomination. Josh Marshall, for instance, calls Romney "toast" and says, "Unless Health Care Reform is a non-issue by 2012 (which I believe is a distinct possibility), he's got to know that the passage of this bill pretty much ends his chances to be nominated for the presidency."

There is a real possibility that it will be a non-issue in 2012, or at least an issue that fades quickly. Remember what a big deal immigration was at the beginning of the 2008 primaries? Every Republican candidate wanted to be the most anti-immigrant. And who had the weakest claim to that title? John McCain, who had actually sponsored a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But after a couple of months of huffing and puffing, the issue disappeared. And McCain ended up winning the nomination mostly because unpalatable opponents dropped off one by one until he was the last one standing.

Something similar could happen to Mitt in 2012. Lots of Republicans are already backing away from talk of "repealing" the reform. And once a few of them get burned for supporting repeal in 2010 ("This is Timmy. He's eight years old, and he has cancer. Congressman Smith thinks insurance companies ought to be able to deny Timmy the care he needs. Why does Congressman Smith want Timmy to die?"), the issue is not going to look so black-and-white. There's no question it will be a topic of discussion in 2012, but it could well be just one among many. And when Romney looks over the potential field -- Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, etc. -- he no doubt thinks, "I can whip these bozos."

Longtime readers will know I've got a soft spot for Mitt. His transparent lack of beliefs, his willingness to adopt any position he thinks will win a moment's affection from the person he's talking to, his eagerness to say and do absolutely anything, no matter how ridiculous, in the pursuit of power -- it has a kind of purity, a phoniness so complete it's charming. So don't worry, Mitt. You're not toast yet!

-- Paul Waldman

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