Joshua Green

Perry can’t exploit key weakness for Romney

(Associated Press)
By Joshua Green
September 1, 2011

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AS RECENTLY as six months ago, Mitt Romney’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination was widely thought to be doomed because, as governor of Massachusetts, he had signed a health care law strikingly similar to the one President Obama signed last year. Republicans were so angry about ObamaCare, this line of reasoning went, that they would soundly reject someone who had championed a similar measure. Last week, Romney’s chief rival for the nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry, alluded to this concern when he told a radio host, “Mitt is finally recognizing that the Massachusetts health care plan that he passed is a huge problem for him.’’

But is it really?

Though some conservatives have written Romney off, the subset who have done so specifically over RomneyCare - and remain untroubled by his other apostasies - would seem fairly small. But for the issue to resonate beyond this group and truly threaten Romney’s chances at the nomination, an opponent will have to press the case. So far, most have shied away. Tim Pawlenty’s meek attack and hasty retreat on “ObamneyCare,’’ as he called it, damaged him more than Romney. He’s now out of the race.

Perry is the newest entrant to the field and lacks neither the confidence nor the willingness to confront his opponents. But at least three factors make Perry singularly ill-suited to mount a convincing attack on Romney over health care.

First, Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the country - more than 25 percent lack coverage. Massachusetts has the lowest rate, with fewer than 2 percent of residents uninsured. Perry will have a hard time making the case that Massachusetts health care is a disqualifying problem without drawing attention to the much more acute problem in his own state. (And it isn’t for any lack of trying - Perry proposed a plan in 2007 that offered subsidies for private or employer-sponsored insurance; it’s gone nowhere.)

Of course, the plight of the uninsured is not exactly a driving issue for the Republican presidential contenders. The principle behind Romney’s plan - the individual mandate - is what galls some conservatives. Perry’s second problem is that he is in no position to capitalize on that sentiment, because he has cast himself as a champion of the 10th Amendment and an ardent defender of states’ rights. Romney’s response to critics of his health care plan is precisely that it suits Massachusetts, but not the rest of the country. In fact, Perry conceded just this point in his recent book, “Fed Up!’’: “If federalism is respected, the people of Massachusetts are free to try [the Romney plan] while the rest of the nation sits back and watches to see if they have any success.’’

Perry’s third problem is that he too is besmirched by associations with unpopular Democratic health care plans. In a 1993 letter to Hillary Clinton, who was then trying to pass “HillaryCare,’’ Perry wrote: “I think your efforts in trying to reform the nation’s health care system are most commendable.’’

As last week’s radio interview makes clear, none of this is likely to dissuade Perry from taking up the issue against Romney. But beyond his personal vulnerabilities on health care, Perry’s criticisms may have trouble gaining traction because Republican voters appear to be growing less opposed to the Obama health care law. According to a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the number of Republicans who hold a favorable opinion of the new law has risen from 8 percent in May 2010 to 24 percent last month. The furor over the law among conservatives has diminished, and calls to repeal it have noticeably quieted down.

Romney’s achievement of extending health care coverage in Massachusetts still will probably not redound to his benefit, at least not among Republican primary voters. That’s an unfortunate reflection of the ideological intensity of the party he hopes to lead. But neither does his predicament seem as terrible as it once did. Like so much else, Romney’s record on health care has been eclipsed by worries about jobs and the economy. The Republican nomination, and the presidency, will probably be decided on that basis.

Joshua Green is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. His column appears regularly in the Globe.