During Mitt Romney's failed bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, he demonstrated a potent knack for wooing the conservative commentariat. While not every big name fell for him, a bevy did, including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Hugh Hewitt, and the editors of the National Review. But if our former governor runs again in 2012, will his right-wing charms still beguile?
Maybe not. Consider Romney's evolving treatment at the hands of Limbaugh, the biggest star in the right-wing media firmament. Before John McCain locked up the nomination, Limbaugh did his voluble best to push Romney as an alternative. After Romney's ballyhooed December 2007 speech on his Mormon faith and the role of religion in public life, for example, he called Romney's musings "the kind of stuff I've been dreaming of hearing in a presidential campaign." (Romney, he added, "exemplified characteristics of somebody who is not afraid to lead.") Two months later, Limbaugh touted Romney as the one GOP candidate whose conservative credentials — on fiscal policy, social issues, and national security — were unimpeachable across the board.
Recently, though, Limbaugh seems far less smitten. In May of this year, he scoffed at a group of big-name Republican pols — including Romney, McCain, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, among others — who'd just formed a new organization, the National Council for a New America, aimed at re-branding the GOP in the age of Obama. Romney and the rest, Limbaugh argued, were primarily concerned with advancing their own careers — or, as he put it, with indulging their "presidential perspirations."
Why did Rush fall out of love? Because he'd found someone else: former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, whom Limbaugh described in the same show as the "most prominent and articulate voice for standard, run-of-the-mill, good old-fashioned American conservatism" during the '08 campaign. (Sorry, Mitt.)
Of course, given Palin's subsequent resignation from Alaska's governorship, and her abiding lack of self-discipline, she and her strange brand of anti-intellectual, rural-everywoman Republicanism might not pose a threat to Romney — who hails from Republican royalty and boasts a Harvard JD and MBA — by the time the primaries roll around. Even if Palin self-destructs, though, Romney has another problem to contend with: namely, Massachusetts's landmark 2006 health-care-reform law, and the way that law jibes with current conservative sensibilities.
Hark back to the National Review's endorsement of Romney in December 2007. The editors didn't exactly see him as a perfect candidate: they urged Romney to demonstrate more passion, and allowed that his views on certain issues have evolved rather . . . drastically. But they, too, praised the depth and breadth of Romney's conservatism. (For good measure, they also called him an "exemplary family man" and a "patriot whose character matches the high office to which he aspires.")
National Review's editors haven't yet recanted like Limbaugh. However, with health-care reform dominating the national political debate, they did publish a lengthy article in the July 24 issue, titled "Romney's Folly," that cast Massachusetts's health-care system as an unmitigated debacle.
That piece, written by the Cato Institute's Michael F. Cannon, reasoned thusly: with its mandates for individuals (who have to purchase coverage or pay a penalty) and employers (who have to provide a minimum-coverage contribution or pay a penalty of their own), plus the creation of a new bureaucracy (the "Commonwealth Connector") to match citizens with low-cost insurance plans, RomneyCare is hardly true to free-market principles. It's a case study in inappropriate government intrusion — and it's making health care in Massachusetts worse, not better.
Both Cannon's premises and conclusions are debatable. Still, they highlight a serious challenge to Romney's presidential ambitions. Thanks to the acrimonious tone of the health-care-reform debate — and the conviction, among a substantial part of the conservative base, that any government attempts to improve health-care represent a dire menace — one of Romney's biggest legislative achievements now looks like a grave liability.
A footnote takes the lead
So are Romney's White House dreams doomed?
Absolutely not, insists, Ronald Kessler — who, in addition to being NewsMax's chief Washington correspondent and author of the just-released In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect (Crown), is one of Romney's most enthusiastic boosters in the conservative press. "There was always skepticism among conservatives about Romney's health-insurance plan," Kessler tells the Phoenix. "Naturally, they're bringing it out again because of the current debate. But it was always a footnote when it came to looking at Romney overall." (Palin's withdrawal, Kessler adds, means she won't be viable in 2012 — and with her out of the mix, "Romney just stands above everybody else right now.")
That may be true. But Romney's embrace of government-driven health-care reform is sure to receive far more attention in 2012 — both because it's the dominant national topic for the first time since the Clinton administration and because outcomes of the Massachusetts law (which, among other things, also provides subsidized private coverage for lower-income individuals) can now be assessed in greater detail.