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Posted at 9:18 AM ET, 02/23/2011

Romney's health care bill = Hillary's Iraq vote?

By Aaron Blake

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If you believe his potential opponents, Mitt Romney's effort at health care reform during his time as governor of Massachusetts is a political death sentence in the 2012 GOP presidential primary.

The bill Romney signed in 2006 has often been compared to the one President Obama spearheaded last Congress, and that doesn't bode well in a Republican presidential primary.

But as we get closer to Romney getting into the presidential race (as he is widely expected to do), it may be more helpful to compare Romney's health care bill to something else: then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's vote for the Iraq war in 2002.

That vote turned the front-running Clinton into a vulnerable candidate in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, as it put her at odds with the general sentiment within the party about the war. Clinton's refusal to apologize for the vote -- as John Edwards did -- ensured that the vote dogged her wherever she went on the campaign trail.

Some Republicans are predicting a similar situation for Romney: endless questions that lead the issue to consume his campaign and eventually cost him votes and the nomination.

The Romney-Clinton comparison has thus far been mentioned only occasionally, but it's worth diving into in more detail -- especially given the effect it supposedly will have on the race's nominal frontrunner.

Below we look at how Romney's health care situation is similar to Clinton's Iraq problems, and how it differs.

WHY THEY'RE SIMILAR

Both Romney's health care bill and Clinton's Iraq vote are anathema to their respective party bases.

Clinton's vote was so toxic because it was an easy way to tie her to President Bush. In the same way, Romney's health care bill is an easy way for his GOP opponents to say, 'Hey, this guy's just like Obama.'

Clinton, by refusing the apologize for her vote or say that it was a mistake, ensured that she would be asked about it at nearly every campaign stop. Romney, whose advisers did not comment for this article, looks to be headed down a similar path; after all, he didn't even mention health care during his recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

To date, Romney hasn't been put on the spot regularly about health care in Massachusetts. But he did make some changes to the most recent version of his latest book, in which he expands on why the bill turned out the way it did. Essentially, he blames the Democrats who changed the bill and Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick for failing the implement it correctly.

That doesn't sound like someone who's about the apologize for his health care bill.

Whether or not that message sticks or not will be determined by a whole host of factors -- Romney's opponents, the media, his response, etc. -- but the potential is certainly there to tie Romney to Obama. And if he starts looking like the frontrunner, you can bet the issue will be pushed relentlessly by his opponents.

WHY THEY'RE DIFFERENT

While there is large segment of the Republican Party that feels very strongly about Obama's health care bill, it's not clear that Romney's health care issues will be on the same scale as Clinton's Iraq issues.

For one, Clinton's vote was easy to quantify; she voted for the use of force resolution against Iraq. Period. With Romney, his opponents need to convince the public that his bill is the same as Obama's bill even as Romney is, presumably, making the case that the two are quite different.

Second, even Romney's potential opponents say Clinton's Iraq vote was more of a deal-breaker for Democratic primary voters than Romney's health care bill will be in the GOP primary. There was a large portion of the Democratic Party who simply couldn't get past that vote by Clinton, and those were the people who fueled then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's rapid rise.

In Romney's case, there aren't as many voters who view his health care bill as a disqualifier.

"Hillary's was more severe," said Ed Rogers, a confidante of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who is considering a run for president in 2012. "My recollection of the Democratic primary was that was a big threshold deciding factor for a lot of votes. Health care is a deciding factor, but it's not a single deciding factor."

While Iraq was the preeminent issue for Democrats at this time in the 2008 campaign, the still-struggling economy and continued unrest in the Middle East have pushed health care as an issue to the back burner. The issues, of course, can change by the time voters start casting ballots in early 2012, but the issue matrix matters -- and the more immediate concerns there are that have nothing to do with health care, the better able Romney will be to avoid seeing his campaign defined by that single issue.

"It could definitely hurt Romney, but it depends on what the overall economy is doing," said one adviser to a potential Romney opponent.

The other major difference between Romney on health care and Clinton on Iraq is the nature of the fields in which they are running.

The 2008 Democratic primary was Clinton-versus-Obama, with a little bit of Edwards thrown in at the start of the process.

The 2012 GOP field is expected to be much more wide open. That means Romney doesn't necessarily need to rack up huge numbers in order to win early states. He can win with 30-35 percent of the vote if there are enough viable candidates in the running.

What's more, Romney isn't as clear a frontrunner now that Clinton was in 2008. People were gunning for Clinton from the outset. That will also be the case with Romney, but not to the same extent.

The choice for Romney is complicated, but really very simple: apologize, and the questions will (likely) relent, or stand firm, and keep trying to explain yourself over and over and over again.

Clinton strategist Mark Penn said in the aftermath of the Clinton's primary loss that the New York senator had little choice in the matter -- that she couldn't apologize for the Iraq vote because it would only make her look weak and fuel her critics. Not everyone agreed with that assessment, of course.

The lessons of that campaign will be valuable for Romney as he embarks on his own bid, and you can bet that similar discussions are being held at Romney HQ these days. After all, how he handles health care may well be the most important strategic decision of his campaign.

By Aaron Blake  | February 23, 2011; 9:18 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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