What Can Romney Say About Health Care?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 11 2011 9:24 AM

What Can Romney Say About Health Care?

As Erin McPike pointed out, Mitt Romney's decision to give a clear-the-air speech tomorrow on health care indicates that he learned something from the last campaign. It wasn't until December 2007, after roughly a year of campaigning, that Romney gave his "Faith in America" speech. The easy implication to draw: He did it too late.

But "Faith in America" was a singulary ineffective air-clearing speech . The issue grinding down Romney in Republican primaries -- specifically in the Iowa caucus and the South Carolina primary -- was his Mormonism. At the time, a Pew Poll found that 25 percent of all voters were less likely to vote for a candidate if he was Mormon. The number was higher among evangelical Christians, and a full 41 percent of weekly churchgoers said they couldn't bite that bullet. Why? Not just because they think Mormonism is a false version of Christianity, but because they think Mormons believe Satan and Jesus are brothers, that the holy trinity were actually flesh and blood, that there are three heavens, etc and etc. There's a lot of tricky doctrinal stuff in there. Romney punted on it.

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There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree."There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.

Not good enough for Republicans. In the Iowa caucuses a month later, Huckabee won 46 percent of evangelical Christians and Romney only won 19 percent. They didn't want to hear that the founders wanted them to simmer down already. (There were other reasons why Romney lost this support, like his renounced pro-choice views.)

So: How does Romney finesse his health care position? Nothing he's tried so far has worked, but nothing will get as much attention as this speech. What hasn't worked: Saying the plan worked for Massachusetts but isn't a "one size fits all" plan for everyone. Conservatives don't agree -- after two years of being told the mandate is tyrannical, it doesn't matter if the mandate is applied by Barack Obama's stormtroopers or the city clerk of Quincy. Will he win anyone over if he gets granular about what was right and wrong with the bill? Or, hey, if he embraces it and explains why the free market/government solution he championed in 2006, and Jim DeMint championed in 2007, is not pure socialism? I don't know, but he shouldn't punt again.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.