By Sam Baker - 03/10/12 07:00 PM EST
As Mitt Romney moves closer to locking up the Republican presidential nomination, the questions about his ability to attack President Obama on healthcare are only getting louder.
Conservatives have long been uneasy with Romney’s record on healthcare. But as an Obama-Romney matchup becomes increasingly likely, so does the prospect that Republicans won’t be able to aggressively campaign against a law that helped propel their historic wins in 2010 — and hasn’t gotten much more popular since.
None of Romney’s GOP rivals hit healthcare harder than former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who argues on the campaign trail that Romney wouldn’t be able to draw a sharp contrast with Obama on the issue in a general election. Obama’s healthcare law was modeled largely on the reforms that Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts, and both plans include an individual mandate, which conservatives vehemently oppose.
Santorum’s attacks might have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He has hit Romney so hard on the issue in conservative southern states that Romney might not want to raise the issue in the general even in attempts to rouse the base, Lake said. She said it would only remind conservative voters, who may already be skeptical of Romney, of the similarities between his plan and Obama’s.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm for us,” Lake said. “We get all the advantages and none of the negatives.”
Republicans acknowledge that Romney isn’t their strongest messenger on healthcare, but they say he doesn’t have to avoid the issue altogether.
“Would someone like Santorum be in a better position to bring up, in a clean fashion, Obamacare? Sure,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said.
But Mackowiak said Romney will be able to keep the focus on what he’d do as president — repeal Obama’s healthcare law — rather than what he did as a governor. Although the two candidates have implemented similar policies in the past, he said, there’s a perfectly clear contrast on the question of repealing the Affordable Care Act.
“Romney does not give us the strongest chance to prosecute the healthcare issue, but I also think there’s such strong opposition … that they’re not going to hold Mitt Romney responsible for President Obama’s healthcare bill,” he said.
Romney’s job could also get much easier if the Supreme Court strikes down the healthcare law this summer. The court is expected to rule in June on whether the individual mandate is constitutional, and how many of the law’s other provisions can remain intact.
“That decision will change everything,” Mackowiak said. “It’s almost impossible to predict … what the political impact is.”
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said he expects Obama to take a “boa constrictor” approach to healthcare, thanking Romney for his good ideas in a way that would make it hard for Romney to launch an attack. But the issue will still resonate as part of a broader attack that blames Obama’s polices for the slow economic recovery, Bonjean said, adding that Romney has been able to “dilute” the issue because he had to spend so much time on it during Republican debates.
Romney has argued during the primary that a coverage mandate was right for Massachusetts but not as a nationwide policy.
That answer has been challenged, though, by recently unearthed materials in which Romney suggested that the Massachusetts approach would be a good model for national health reform. Democrats don’t seem to think the distinction between state and federal mandates will resonate, but rather will help portray Romney as inconsistent.
“Any time he engages on this issue, he ends up basically having a debate with himself,” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said.
The Democratic National Committee released a web ad Friday that focuses entirely on the individual mandate and quotes Romney saying, “I like mandates.” It would normally be an unusual move — the mandate is, after all, a central and largely unpopular part of Obama’s healthcare law. But, Lehane said, a chance to accuse Mitt Romney of flip-flopping is more important than the policy itself.
“Any time Romney is talking about health care, he’s losing,” he said.