Why Health Care Is Mitt Romney's Jeremiah Wright
Romney dodged health care reform at CPAC 2011. But he'll have to ditch "RomneyCare," the same way Barack Obama used his 2008 race speech to help him break with his fiery pastor.
Not anymore. At CPAC, Romney passed up his first chance to explain to would-be conservative supporters why their contempt for Obama's "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" and its constitutionally dicey individual mandate shouldn't also be directed at him, the only governor in the country to successfully implement such a scheme.
Romney didn't just steer clear of the individual mandate. He barely mentioned health care at all, even though it's arguably the biggest domestic issue of Obama's presidency. The closest he came was his tepid criticism that Obama wants a "European-style solution to an American problem."
But as the presidential primaries draw closer, health care will be an issue Romney finds harder and harder to duck. And until he takes health care reform head-on, he'll be the only candidate who can't hit Obama on his least popular program.
In 2008, Obama catapulted past then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive favorite in the Democratic primary. But he didn't close the deal until he gave his "A More Perfect Union" address, when he distinguished his views on race relations from Wright, his longtime pastor, and convinced swing voters that he was a uniter, not a divider, on issues of race.
Romney has a similar problem with health care. He's the Republican front-runner, but he can't get past conservative primary voters until he convinces them he's not the culprit for the health care reform model that he first adopted and was later supported by Obama and congressional Democrats.
The paradox for Romney is that his only fix for 2012 comes from Obama's 2008 playbook. In response to outcry over Wright's charges of government conspiracies against African Americans and his statement about Iraq War setbacks that "America's chickens are coming home to roost," Obama reassured voters of his view that Wright was "not only wrong but divisive; divisive at a time when we need unity."
And it worked. He put race in his rearview mirror and won praise from conservatives like the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, who called the address "as honest a speech as one in his position could give."
Romney got in and out of CPAC's Washington, D.C. gathering unscathed. But if he wants to avoid becoming the designated punching bag for his opponents when debate season starts, he needs to get going on a speech that lays out his 2012 health care stance, because the individual mandate is political poison with Republican primary voters.
He might hope, as Obama said in 2008, that the issue "fades into the woodwork." Don't bet on it. If Romney runs away from RomneyCare, it's a mistake. He has to somehow explain why Obama shouldn't have gone nationwide with what was Romney's signature legislative achievement as governor.
How will he do it -- who knows? But he might want to start with the working title, "A More Perfect Health Care."
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.