How the Tea Party Plans To Bend Romney to Their Will

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 2 2012 6:29 PM

No More Benedict Arnolds

GOP activists are mounting another attack on health care reform. First task: Keep Romney honest.

Former House Majority Leader and Freedomworks chairman, Dick Armey (C) addresses Tea Party activists at a 'Get Out The Vote' rally for Pat Toomey in Philadelphia on October 12, 2010.
FreedomWorks Chairman Dick Armey in October 2010.

Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images.

“I was thinking about Benedict Arnold,” said Matt Kibbe. “How many people here—this is a hypothetical question—how many people here remember what a great job he did at the Battle of Ticonderoga?”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

It was the last day of June. Kibbe, the president of the Tea Party umbrella group FreedomWorks, was moderating an activist briefing/action report on the Supreme Court triumph of “Obamacare.” Of course it would start with a Revolutionary War analogy.

“Anyone remember that?” Kibbe asked. “No. You remember something else that he did. And I think Justice Roberts, in his action, threw away a great legal career with one decision.”

Everybody was angry, so why not vent? Every time a lower court had struck down the law, FreedomWorks had celebrated and predicted more victories. They needed those victories, because conservative courts were more trustworthy than Mitt Romney. Last July, FreedomWorks bailed on a Tea Party Express tour because Romney would appear at one stop, and the movement needed to “defend our brand against poseurs.” Last November, FreedomWorks PAC’s Max Pappas reminded activists that “Romney called his beta version of ObamaCare ‘a model for the nation.’ ”

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And now the beta-tester for the Road to Serfdom was the GOP nominee against Barack Obama. Fantastic. Kibbe handed the call over to FreedomWorks’s health care analyst Dean Clancy. The first question: Could people “trust” Romney to repeal the law?

“I believe that Gov. Romney is the man who put us in this fix, to some extent,” said Clancy. “At the same time, I believe that he is a man who can very much help us get out of this fix. He has said, repeatedly, that he would repeal Obamacare in its entirety, and he would even try to stop implementation in the states on day one.”

Two things are true about the conservative movement, Romney, and health care. One: The activists don’t trust him. Two: They will correct this by bending him to their will.

They really don’t have a choice. Romney passed a mandate-driven health care plan in Massachusetts. Ask him to renounce it, and he’ll give you a PowerPoint about why he can’t. On Monday, Romney’s “dark knight” Eric Fehrnstrom confirmed that his boss “agreed with the dissent that was written by Justice Scalia, which very clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax.”

That’s too bad, but activists and PACs don’t change their thinking because a candidate says so. As Romney choked, Americans for Prosperity was rolling out a $9 million campaign with ad that deploys the word “tax” five times in 30 seconds. American Commitment, a new group founded by former AFP vice president Phil Kerpen, was counting up signatures and support for a “No Mandate Tax” campaign. Did it matter what Romney thought? “No,” said Kerpen. “Whether it's an unconstitutional exercise of the commerce power or a dubious use of the taxation power has little bearing on the propriety or popularity of the provision.”

You can fight this out in plenty of arenas, and in some of them you can win. On the FreedomWorks call, Clancy and others reminded Tea Partiers that their governors and legislators could throw themselves into the gears to stop Obamacare. Newly Republican legislatures spent part of 2011 passing Health Care Freedom Acts, written to ban any compliance with insurance mandates. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the go-to libertarian model-legislation shop, 14 states have passed the HCFA. In November, Ohio voters passed a Health Care Freedom Act by a landslide 2-1 margin.

One problem with this: The HCFA doesn’t actually prevent the mandate from crossing the Ohio border. “It does not, and never did, override a federal law,” sighed Attorney General Mike DeWine after the decision. But please, consider the Republican base. A new Kaiser Family Foundation poll, taken after the Supreme Court’s health care ruling, found that only 38 percent of Americans wanted politicians to “continue trying to block the law from being implemented.” Among Republicans? Sixty-nine percent.

So the GOP needs other, better “block Obamacare” tactics. Some Republican-dominated legislatures have refused to implement health care exchanges. Since the decision came down, a rump of Republican governors—led by Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal—have showily pledged not to implement the law until such time as they can “elect Gov. Romney to repeal Obamacare.” Ignore the record and ignore what his flacks say. Romney will sign what conservatives make him sign.

Conservatives believe this, or they’re starting to. In the first 24 hours after the court saved Obamacare, the Romney campaign announced $5.5 million in new money from at least 55,000 donors. Some of those donors had clicked on a new Web ad that offered a brand new T-shirt, with the slogan “Obamacare Survived. It Falls on November 6.” It didn’t matter to most anti-war Democrats that John Kerry voted for the war and got mush-mouthed about it in the general election. The same principle’s playing out here.

That, and one more thing. “The fact of the matter,” said Dean Clancy on that FreedomWorks call, “is [that] it would be very easy for Romney to come in and say, ‘You know what, we didn't elect enough Republicans in the Senate, so we don't have enough votes to fix it.’ ” You’re upset about Romney’s latest tax/mandate/repeal answer? Hit the “donate” button for your local Republican candidate instead. Make sure he signed the necessary “repeal” pledges. You can deal with Benedict Arnold after you win.

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