The inevitable reassurance after Eric Fehrnstrom’s “not a tax” soundbite kicked off a new round of anxiety over Romney. When Allen West is on Fox News in primetime telling conservatives that it might be time for some new presidential campaign staff, you know the moment has come for damage control.
So is the Romney campaign, in fact, declaring a “cease-fire” on Obamacare? No, no, no, says Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. “From our perspective, Obamacare has been and will continue to be a central issue in the campaign,” says Williams. “It presents voters with a bright line that divides the two candidates. Gov. Romney is going to repeal Obamacare and President Obama is going to keep it. There is a clear choice in November.”…
Williams notes that Romney made a public statement, shortly after the Supreme Court decision was announced, pledging his continued determination to repeal the health care law. In addition, Romney’s “Day One” commercials, which prominently feature the promise to repeal Obamacare, are still playing in several states. The campaign also released a web ad after the Supreme Court decision, promising to keep up the Obamacare fight. It also made regular announcements on the amount of money the campaign raised from supporters who oppose the Supreme Court ruling. And Romney’s campaign website, MittRomney.com, is filled with emphatic promises to repeal Obamacare.
So much for National Journal’s “ceasefire” speculation this morning — although I do think Team Mitt expects it’ll be roundly forgiven by the right for letting this issue slip during the campaign so long as their chances of winning are increasing. If those horrible new manufacturing numbers signal a wider economic downturn and end up sending Romney out to, say, a consistent four-point lead, no one’s going to be clamoring for him to shift his messaging from the economy to a battle o’ the mandates. A few lines about O-Care in his stump speech will suffice. The only way in which this ends up center stage, I think, is if (a) Obama and Romney get into an extended “ObamaCare vs. RomneyCare” exchange at the debates, when health care will assuredly come up, or (b) if the economy surprises everyone and starts to grow faster, forcing Mitt to come up with a Plan B. ObamaCare — or ObamaTax, if Team Mitt is willing to embrace that argument — is a logical fallback plan, but in light of Fehrnstrom’s answer last night, it looks like the Romney campaign wouldn’t at all be comfortable fighting that fight. They can do it if they have to by focusing on the cost, rationing, etc, but my hunch is that they think public opinion’s already more or less cemented on this. (The fact that the needles haven’t moved much in the post-SCOTUS polls seems to confirm that suspicion.) If Obama’s leading by four in September thanks to an economic rebound, it’s hard to believe that the thousandth iteration of “one-size-fits-all health-care plans are bad” will make up the difference. (If the public believed that, they wouldn’t be so keen on Medicare, right?)
All of which is to say, the “ObamaCare = ObamaTax” argument might be the only thing left to say about the program that the public hasn’t heard before (much) and which might actually move the needle. Is Romney’s team willing to embrace it? Stephen Hayes urges him to bite the bullet:
It’s inconceivable that at least some of the campaign this fall will not focus on the differences between what Obama did at the federal level and what Romney did in Massachusetts, with the Obama campaign seeking to obscure those differences and Romney trying to accentuate them. Why not call it a tax and include those differences in that debate?…
“Romney is quickly proving himself to be what some of us expected, very reactionary without a clear alternative to Obamacare,” said one Republican congressman. “The American people want and need the truth from him. Romneycare was both legal and a failure at the state level. Romney should just come clean.”…
“It doesn’t quite matter whether Romney calls this a tax, a penalty, or a potato. Voters will call it a tax and so will every other Republican candidate running for every other office,” [a Republican strategist] says. “It will be the most popular attack ad in Senate and House campaigns. Much like the president resisted the term Obamacare before he embraced it, we are two months away from even Romney calling it a tax. Gravity cannot be suspended.”
Is that the Hail Mary if Romney ends up trailing with only a few weeks to go — telling America that he’s learned the hard way what ambitious mandate-driven health-care programs can do and urging it to repent while it still has time, like some Ghost of Health-Care Christmas Future? Can’t imagine Team Mitt would be eager to run on a “my signature gubernatorial achievement was a terrible mistake” platform, but we’re gaming out worst-case scenarios here.
Here’s Allen West last night on Fox pushing the ObamaTax line and urging Romney to follow suit.