When this campaign started a year or so ago, a lot of people said that whatever his virtues, Mitt Romney simply could not become the presidential nominee of the Republican party, for one reason above all others: health care. He had the misfortune of having passed a popular, successful plan to reform health insurance in Massachusetts, only to watch a nearly identical plan become, in the eyes of his party, the most abominable freedom-destroying monstrosity since the Alien and Sedition Acts. Many smart people thought there was just no way Romney could get past it.
Yet here we are, in the wake of Super Tuesday, and Mitt has a healthy delegate lead. No one seriously believes that he isn't going to be the nominee. Throughout this race, health care has certainly been an irritant for him, the cause of many an unpersuasive explanation and absurd protestation. But it hasn't stopped his march to the nomination. The problem Mitt now has is that health care is about to go from being a primary election problem to being a general election problem. And Rick Santorum is going to make sure it happens.
As Buzzfeed reports, the Santorum campaign has decided that health care will be one of the main pillars of its attack on Romney from this point forward (Santorum discussed it at length in his sort-of-victory speech last night). In the next week, there are contests in Kansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, all states where Santorum will do well. So in response to Santorum's attacks, Romney will likely get more and more emphatic about how much he hates the Affordable Care Act. The other day in Ohio, a woman at an event asked for reassurance that Romney would repeal Obamacare, and he replied, "Why would I not?" (Oh I don't know—the 32 million people who are going to get insured? The end on exclusions for pre-existing conditions? Eh, whatever). In his desperation to win the hearts of the most extreme members of his party's base and put this thing away, he'll end up sounding like a parody of the heartless Republican who wants to toss people off their coverage and make them fend for themselves.
I can promise you that in the general election, Mitt Romney is never going to bring up health care unless someone asks him a question about it. He knows that while it's red meat for the Republican base, independent voters are ambivalent about the ACA and certainly aren't thirsting for repeal. He also knows that any time the subject comes up, his own history of flip-flopping, pandering, and general dishonesty on the topic will come right to voters' minds. But between now and then, he's going to be forced to talk about it, a lot. And that means he'll have to do even more pandering, even more flip-flopping, even more obfuscating. All of which will just deepen the hole he'll have to dig himself out of in the general election.