Will Mitt Romney start talking more about health care now? Conservatives would like the 2012 election to be about the Affordable Care Act. This will test Rick Santorum's contention that Mitt Romney can't argue against the ACA because of his Massachusetts health care plan. Romney in a statement after the ruling promised to work for the defeat of the president's version from his first day in office. He issued a fundraising appeal to conservatives talking about the threat to liberty. His campaign boasts that in the immediate aftermath of the ruling, they raised $1 million.
Recent polling suggests that Romney might not benefit significantly outside his core constituents. It's clear that the ruling will help him with conservatives. The Affordable Care Act helped galvanize Tea Party activists in 2010. Now the only way the law can be defeated is if Mitt Romney is elected. In a recent CBS poll, 70 percent of Tea Party voters said they wanted to overturn the law. But outside that group of activists, the opposition to the law doesn’t look passionate enough to drive a big group of voters. Overall, 37 percent of voters in the CBS poll think the law went too far, 27 percent think the law didn't go far enough, and another 25 percent think it's about right. That's a small base of voters for Romney to work from; he's already got most of them (84 percent of this group are either Tea Party or Republicans); and anyone who doesn't like the law but isn't already voting for Mitt Romney isn't going to be swayed just by a Supreme Court ruling. Of course this is polling before the fact. Things could change.
Mitt Romney will have to make the case against health care reform with more specifics if he is to pick up more votes than he gets by merely giving it the big thumbs down. That means he'll have to engage the issue in a way he has not before. Mere assertion won't do if he's trying to convince voters that they should lose all of the benefits President Obama cites—the millions with coverage who would previously have been denied, the seniors with expanded Medicare coverage, those who are protected from insurance companies who might have dropped them before the law was passed.
If Gov. Romney is going to do that, he'll have to propose an alternative. That may be turf more favorable to the president. Twice in Romney’s statement responding to the ruling, he said, “This is a choice” when talking about the electoral conditions created by the court’s action. The president has been trying to get people to see the election as a choice for months—a choice between two candidates and their plans is preferable than a referendum on his record.
Right now, according to the latest Pew poll, voters say they are about evenly divided on which candidate they trust to handle the issue of health care. If Mitt Romney can convince voters that health care is an economic issue, he'll be fighting on his turf. The Pew poll shows that by an 8-point margin, voters trust him to handle the economy over Obama. Romney could use Roberts’ argument that the individual mandate is a tax (and not a penalty) against the president as a part of his larger argument that Obama is an old-style liberal who will raise your taxes. The peril of that approach, though, is that it will lead to a debate about Romney’s use of tax penalties as governor of Massachusetts.
If voters see health care as a matter of which candidate will look out for them, then Obama has the advantage. He leads Romney by 31 points in the latest Pew poll when respondents were asked, “Who connects more with ordinary Americans?”
In this fight, the president may have an unlikely ally in Chief Justice Roberts. By upholding the law and authoring the decision, he lent an extra measure of validation. According to a recent CBS poll, 76 percent of the country thinks Supreme Court justices make their decisions based on politics. If that were true, John Roberts would have ruled against the president. Since he didn't, it could suggest wider approval than if Obama had won with a 5-4 majority signed by Justice Kennedy. Robert’s role led to an outcry from conservatives like Sarah Palin, Red State’s Erick Erikson, and Rep. Jack Kingston, who Tweeted that after the ruling he was no longer friends with John Roberts. Perhaps the chief justice should head down the root cellar until this thing clears.