Critics open fire against a 'fatal flaw’

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / May 13, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The opposition among Republicans to Mitt Romney’s health care record runs deep, from the visceral vehemence of the grass-roots Tea Party movement to the dressing-down delivered yesterday by the bastion of conservative intellectuals: the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

The common theme is that Romney’s authorship, as Massachusetts governor, of the state’s 2006 health care overhaul was an unforgivable violation of conservative principles, making him unfit to be the GOP standard-bearer against President Obama next year.

Under the headline “Obama’s Running Mate,’’ the Journal questioned Romney’s very “philosophy of government,’’ an indictment that conservatives usually reserve for at tacks on liberal Democrats.

Instead of running for president as a Republican, the editorial suggested, he should be a candidate to replace Vice President Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket.

“For a potential president whose core argument is that he knows how to revive free market economic growth, this amounts to a fatal flaw,’’ the Journal wrote about Romney.

Romney has tried to walk a fine line, criticizing the president’s health care plan for taking a one-size-fits-all approach to all 50 states while defending his own approach as appropriate at the time for Massachusetts. That was the theme of his speech yesterday in Ann Arbor, Mich., as he sought to neutralize the blistering criticism over the issue and lay the groundwork for a presidential bid.

That explanation won’t work with the Tea Party, said Shelby Blakely, a spokeswoman for the national Tea Party Patriots.

“Romneycare is an albatross around his neck,’’ said Blakely, in an interview. She suggested that Romney’s health care record cannot be explained away by charts and graphs or by a political argument — only a complete and unequivocal apology will do. “He needs to say, ‘If I could do it over, I would never have done it.’

“If he could do this, there could be a lot of forgiveness for him among the Tea Party,’’ she predicted.

Yesterday, Romney signaled there is little in his state health plan that demands an apology.

To some Republican opinion-makers, that stance borders on arrogance.

“Game over, Mitt Romney,’’ conservative commentator Erick Erickson declared on his radio show last night. “Everyone’s been waiting for him to distance himself from Romneycare, but instead, every Republican will be distancing themselves from Romney.’’

Erickson, detailing how the individual mandate requiring everyone to buy health insurance was adopted by the Democrats from the Bay State’s plan, ridiculed Romney’s drawing of distinctions between the plans.

“Mitt Romney, he’s OK with socialism at the state level, but not on the national level,’’ Erickson said.

Conservative political columnist and pundit Jonah Goldberg was equally dismissive, tweeting his own headline for Romney’s speech: “Breaking: Mitt Romney auditions for David Axelrod’s Job in Ann Arbor Speech,’’ referring to President Obama’s former political adviser.

One of Romney’s potential GOP competitors, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, has flatly declared that “Romneycare . . . shows that socialized medicine does not work. Period.’’

Doug Gross, who chaired Romney’s 2008 campaign in the critical early state of Iowa, calls health care “a very big problem’’ for Romney.

The vast majority of Republican voters want to repeal President Obama’s health care reforms, with the major objection being the individual mandate, said Gross. Many conservatives and libertarians recoil from the mandate — which Romney yesterday called a necessary element of the Bay State reforms — as an affront to personal liberty.

Romney has few remedies at his disposal, said Gross, now a GOP organizer.

“He has two issues — he’s got [health care] and he’s got the issue about whether or not people think he’s genuine,’’ said Gross. “So if he tries to run away from health care, it will make his other problem, the genuineness problem, even worse. So he’s got to own it. And then deal with it.’’

Some analysts suggest that Romney look past criticism from GOP pundits and activists and make his appeal directly to voters.

In the first primary state of New Hampshire, considered a must-win for Romney, sentiment among GOP voters may support that strategy. A new Suffolk University/WHDH-TV poll shows that while 86 percent of likely Republican voters think universal health care should be repealed or modified, 53 percent said that Romney’s work on the issue in Massachusetts would not affect their decisions to vote for him.

The same poll showed Romney well ahead of other potential candidates in New Hampshire.

“Health care is one issue; the Beltway thinks it’s the issue,’’ said Wayne Johnson, a Republican political strategist based in California who believes Romney has other advantages that could negate the blowback. “Republicans tend to go with what they know and they probably feel like they know Romney a little bit compared to some of the new candidates this cycle,’’ he said. “He’s got resources. He’s got logistical staying power.’’

Former Virginia congressman Tom Davis, now president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate GOP organization, said the attacks on Romney have more to do with the former governor’s standing as the primary front-runner.

“When you’re the front-runner early on, everybody tries to take you down,’’ said Davis. “I don’t think there’s anybody running for the nomination that doesn’t have some flies on them somewhere that would make some element of the Republican base angry.’’

“My feeling is health care alone doesn’t take him out,’’ said Davis. “This is the first line of attack and the coming months will tell whether he can withstand that.’’

Globe staff reporter Matt Viser contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at