Why Romney Is Still Struggling To Get On-Message

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 5 2012 12:22 PM

The Penalty Box

The Romney campaign is struggling to get on-message on health care—a week after the decision.

Romney on the 4th.
Mitt Romney with his wife Ann Romney during the Wolfeboro Independence Day parade on July 4, 2012 in Wolfeboro, N.H.

Photograph by Kayana Szymczak/GettyImages.

Republicans may have renewed reason to think well of Chief Justice John Roberts. Mitt Romney argued Wednesday that Roberts' Supreme Court ruling uncovered Barack Obama's hidden tax in the Affordable Care Act while simultaneously proving that Romney's similarly designed measure in his Massachusetts health care law was not a tax, but merely a penalty. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Did Roberts do this? Not really, but Romney’s novel claim offered the latest twist in a winding series of responses to the ruling. The last week has offered a rare window into the Romney campaign in action. Buttoned-down and risk-averse, the team is slow to react and sticks to the script so strictly they’re even willing to endure ridicule. Those can be highly prized qualities in presidential campaigns. The presidency requires relentless focus, too. But politics and the presidency also require a certain dexterity, an ability to be nimble in the face of changing events.

A blistering editorial from the conservative editors at the Wall Street Journal argues that the Romney campaign has failed to get this mix right, particularly in its response to the court’s Affordable Care Act ruling. Bill Kristol, who was just a guest at Romney’s high-donor event in Utah, has also penned a bracing piece asking: “Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he's running?”

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The conservative complaint, which started brewing in the wake of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recall victory, is that Romney lacks the entrepreneurial spark to take advantage of opportunities and is merely hoping the other guy loses.

Romney’s July 4 remarks on the health care decision represented an effort to get back on track: aligning himself with his party and eliding the challenges of his record in Massachusetts.

When John Roberts’ health care ruling was read on June 28, Romney’s response was perfectly in keeping with his straightforward no-exposed-shirttail campaign. Romney spoke in front of a lectern, disagreed with the ruling and the campaign commenced arguing that Obama’s health care plan would kill jobs, moving back to the Republican nominee’s safest and most advantageous turf.

But that was the easy part. It was clear from conversations with campaign aides in the wake of the ruling that there was no plan to manage or respond to Romney’s exposure on the question of his Massachusetts health plan—particularly the provision that was nearly identical to President Obama’s. When one aide was presented with a 2010 quote from Romney praising his Massachusetts “tax,” he questioned whether Romney really said that. Offered evidence, the aide responded: “Possibly.” In the week since the decision, the lack of focus is reminiscent of Romney’s muddled response during the primaries to questions about his tax returns and record at Bain. All of these questions are issues the campaign could see coming. Romney’s exposure on health care is the largest of all—a storm that has always been on the horizon.

Romney’s immediate response may have been disciplined, but it was tone deaf to what the party was thinking and saying. Republicans had seized on John Roberts’ reasoning in his decision that the individual mandate is constitutional based on Congress' power to tax. President Obama, delighted as he was to have his signature legislative accomplishment saved from the shredder, has steadfastly argued that this provision is not a tax, but a penalty. It may have been a tax for the purposes of the Supreme Court debate that kept the law alive, but once the law stumbled from behind the marble columns, it was a penalty. 

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