Romney gave what he touted as a "major speech" today addressing how he would tackle healthcare policy as president. The speech was designed to deal with his campaign's main problem: Answering for Romneycare, the healthcare reform he instituted in Massachusetts. But the speech revealed his strategy remains deeply flawed.
Romney has a unique advantage, one the other candidates wish they possessed. He knows exactly what his biggest challenge will be: answering for Romneycare. He knows he will be criticized for it, he knows that it will be ceaselessly compared to Obamacare, and he knows the Republican primary voters will demand an explanation.
Romney has had a few years to formulate a way to deal with the healthcare plan he instituted in Massachusetts. So far, however, Romney has failed to discover the proper strategy. He has a strategy, but it will not work. If Romney fails to win the nomination, it will likely be the result of a failure to correct this mistake.
Elephant Watcher has analyzed the Republican contenders and, based on the candidates' strengths and weaknesses, determined their best strategies for winning the nomination. These strategies are explained in the candidates' Profiles, including Romney's.
Romney's optimal strategy is discussed in some detail in the above-linked Profile. In this post, we will look at Romney's actual--that is, current--strategy for dealing with Romneycare, and how it compares to the strategy he should be taking.
There are three basic components to consider.
First, Romney should explain the motives he had when he created Romneycare. This is necessary because he must convince voters that he had good intentions--fixing a real problem with healthcare coverage and costs--rather than bad ones. Most Republican primary voters believe the purpose of Obamacare was to expand government. Romney needs to make sure voters don't think he was trying to do the same.
On this component, Romney's current strategy matches the proper one reasonably well. Romney does frequently explain what his motives were for trying Romneycare.
The second component to the Romneycare strategy is for Romney to explain what he would do about healthcare as president. This is the easiest part, because Congressional Republicans already laid out alternatives to Obamacare during 2009 and 2010.
On this component, Romney also does well. He promises that as president, he would sign a repeal of Obamacare. And Romney presents Republican-approved ideas as his own plan.
The third component is the most important one: Romney must make a clean break with Romneycare by convincing voters he knows it was a failure, and that he made a big mistake.
This is where Romney's current strategy goes off the rails. In Romney's speech, he said that he would not simply walk away from what he did in Massachusetts. Instead, he suggests that Romneycare really isn't all that bad. He contrasts it with Obamacare (Romneycare was a state plan rather than a federal one), and he says Romneycare has both good and bad aspects. At present, Romney is simply unwilling to cut ties with Romneycare. There are three main reasons why Romney is clinging to Romneycare, and none of them are good:
1. Some say Romneycare has actually been successful in Massachusetts, and Romney does not want to divorce himself from something that worked. The problem is that it's liberals who say Romneycare has worked. They have to say this, because they are so fully invested in defending Obamacare, which is similar to Romneycare. Likewise, Republicans are too heavily invested in opposing Obamacare to believe Romneycare is a success. Romney will never convince Republican primary voters that Romneycare is a good system.
2. Romney does not want to admit to a big mistake, because it would suggest he has bad judgment and would hurt his ego. Politicians find it very difficult to apologize. The irony is that apologies can be very effective in politics. By making a clean break with a mistake early on, it is difficult for opponents to repeatedly resurrect the subject. More importantly, Romney does not have the option of not admitting a mistake here. It may make him look bad, but he has no other choice.
3. Some say Romneycare was the centerpiece of his administration in Massachusetts, and admitting it was a mistake would suggest he did nothing good as governor. This is the worst of the reasons not to cut ties with Romneycare. It is not as if Republican primary voters will give him credit for Romneycare. Moreover, voters are not that concerned with what he did in Massachusetts. They simply want to know that he is a serious candidate. They already believe he is.
In closing, it is fair to say that Romney's handling of the Romneycare issue is still quite weak. His muddling approach leaves Republican primary voters unsatisfied. As a result, the issue will be raised and reraised again and again. The primary season is long; Romney cannot sneak around the issue. Until he definitively says Romneycare is good or bad (the latter, if he wants to win the nomination), he will not be able to get past this issue.
During the May 5th debate, Pawlenty illustrated how best to deal with a mistake: He completely disavowed his former embrace of cap-and-trade.
Candidates can (and frequently do) change their strategies. Elephant Watcher will continue to monitor Romney's statements on Romneycare to detect any change in strategy. If he corrects course, his odds of winning the nomination will improve. Elephant Watcher calculates that Romney presently has a 10% chance of winning the nomination.