The Republican presidential debates have driven the course of the campaign, but sometimes it takes a couple days for the result to make itself clear. Now that the dust from Tuesday night’s angry confrontation has settled, the new picture is emerging. Rick Perry has stopped his free fall and is complicating Mitt Romney’s march to the nomination.
Romney’s plan has been premised on a clear-eyed understanding of the political landscape. The Republican Party was deeply discredited by the Bush years, and has done nothing to recover its standing. Instead, its disrepute has simply been eclipsed by an even more powerful force — public discontent with the Obama administration during an economic crisis. Yet the Republican brand and many Republican ideas remain highly unpopular. Grasping this reality, Romney has attempted to escape the primary with the minimal amount of commitments to his base. His general election message is simply that things has gotten worse under Obama, and he’s a smart business guy, so let’s give him a chance.
Tuesday's debate reopened Romney’s vulnerability on health care. Romney’s position is that his health care reform in Massachusetts was a terrific success, is beloved by the people of Massachusetts, but would be a socialist disaster at the federal level, and should not even be adopted by any other state. Conservatives justifiably suspect that Romney may not actually believe this. Romney’s defenses of Masscare — that the individual mandate is a conservative idea, that it leaves most people’s workplace insurance untouched and relies on private insurance to cover those outside the system — are also defenses of the Affordable Care Act.
Given that repealing most of the Affordable Care Act would require a huge commitment of political capital and the near-destruction of the health insurance industry, conservatives want Romney to display a deeper commitment to their holy crusade to repeal health care reform. Bush administration veteran, pseudo-wonk, and repeal crusader Jeffrey H. Anderson points out that Romney’s defense of his health care record makes no sense. The Wall Street Journal editorial page today demands that Romney commit himself to yanking away coverage for the uninsured (“he now evinces an unaffordable faith that government must pay to reduce the uninsured rate").
Meanwhile, Perry is opening a new front with his forthcoming proposal for a flat tax. But this is also a position Romney would rather avoid having to match. The federal income tax charges high-income earners a higher rate than middle- or low-income earners. Replacing that with a tax that charges everybody the same rate would shift the tax burden from the rich to the non-rich. If you use a flat tax to raise the same amount of revenue, you give the rich a huge tax cut and give everybody else a tax hike.
Generally, Republicans proposing a flat tax have gotten around this problem by setting the rate at a point where the middle class would pay about the same amount, and the rich far less. That lessens the political vulnerability, but doesn’t eliminate it — Democrats can point out that the reduced revenue will require deeper cuts in Social Security and Medicare.
The flat tax is another issue that drives a wedge between what’s popular in a Republican primary and what’s popular in a general election. Romney fiercely opposed it in 1996, even taking out a newspaper ad to attack the idea. It would be hard for him to match Perry on the issue. But Romney will have to try to mollify conservatives who love the concept. The result will be another issue where he adopts a complicated, yes-but stance.
And that plays right into Perry’s hands. The Perry plan is also plain as day. He takes uncompromising positions to Romney’s right, on health care and taxes, and forces Romney to adopt contorted positions in return. Then Perry uses Romney’s contortions to craft an image of his opponent as slick and unprincipled. Perry’s latest ad employs a telling phrase to attack Romney — “shape-shifting nuance.” Nuance and shape-shifting are two different things, but Perry’s goal is to turn them into the same thing. Romney’s complicated explanations can thus be turned into an indictment of his character, his superior adeptness as a debater transformed into a weakness.
The most important single element of Perry's plan was simply to reinsert himself into the conversation. Republicans are highly reluctant to vote for Romney, and they have flitted about from alternative to alternative. Perry's No. 1 demand was to get back into the picture. The biggest takeaway from the debate was Romney fighting with Perry. That's what he needs. It's a fight he can still win.