For those of us old enough to remember the time when President Obama’s reelection campaign was flailing and desperate allies were bombarding him with advice — it was about two weeks ago — it feels a little soon for Republicans to dissolve into panic of their own. And yet here we are.
The basic chronology of the latest panic is as follows. First, Rupert Murdoch — who commands a vast global media empire — decided his personal Twitter feed was the medium of choice to communicate his belief that Romney needs to replace his campaign staff. Fellow right-wing business titan Jack Welch concurred. Then the Wall Street Journal editorial page fired off a jittery editorial bemoaning his “insular staff and strategy that are slowly squandering an historic opportunity.”
All this was the backdrop for Romney’s poorly received interview yesterday, in which he attempted to clarify his position on whether the individual mandate is a tax. His adviser Eric Fehrnstrom initially said it was not. Now Romney says it is. Dropped into the roiling waters of Republican discontent, this is the perfect recipe for an early summer campaign freak-out.
It’s worth bearing in mind a couple points, though. First, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that Romney is actually blowing it right now. The polls have registered a slight uptick for Obama, possibly related to his campaign’s ability to hammer home the ugly underside of Romney’s business career, or possibly reflecting a random statistical blip.
The mandate-tax brouhaha merely reflects the impossible position Romney finds himself in. Remember, as late as 2010, Romney was praising Obama’s decision to include an individual mandate in his health-care law. Then Republicans decided it was unconstitutional, and since then have concluded it is the only thing worse than unconstitutional: a tax. So Republicans insisted that Romney not undercut them and concur that it is indeed a tax. So he did. And when asked about the identical policy he introduced to Massachusetts, here was his attempt to draw a distinction:
Actually, the — chief justice, in his opinion, made it very clear that, at the state level — states have the power to put in place mandates. They don't need to require them to be called taxes in order for them to be constitutional. And — and as a result, Massachusetts' mandate was a mandate, was a penalty, was described that way by the legislature and by me. And so it stays as it was.
I have read this passage countless time in an attempt to make sense of it. Romney seems to be asserting that Obama’s individual mandate is a tax because the Supreme Court ruled it is justifiable under the taxing authority, and because his individual mandate never faced a legal challenge, it never had to declare itself a tax, so it isn’t, even though it is exactly the same thing. This is bizarre.
On the other hand, you try explaining a coherent worldview when you’re in Romney’s position. It’s impossible. The best you can to is emit some kind of word salad.
Here is the deeper problem. Conservatives say they want Romney to change his staff or alter his campaign tactics. But what they really want is a different candidate and a different electorate. They want to believe that the American people are hungering for detailed endorsements of Republican plans to cut entitlement spending and taxes for the rich and launch a philosophical assault on the welfare state. But that’s not what the public wants and Romney knows it.
People don’t like the health-care law because they have no idea what it does and think it was a distraction from the economy. Romney’s best and only campaign strategy is to exploit discontent with the disastrous economy. He needs the votes of as many people as possible who feel frustrated with Obama, which is why he is leaving his alternative as vague as possible. Obama is the candidate who wants to turn the election into a specific choice between competing visions for the future, because Obama’s preference — in which taxes for the rich are higher and entitlement spending gets cut less — is vastly more popular. What’s more, Romney’s history as father of national health insurance and sometime-advocate of the same national plan as the one Obama passed exposes the philosophical inanity of the Republican belief that Obamacare represents socialism.
The smart move for Romney is to ignore conservative caterwauling. The only question is whether he’ll be able to, or whether his base, as it has done from time to time, will force him to run the campaign they want rather than the one Romney needs.