Romney has been dogged by the issue for much of the last two years as his potential Republican opponents have been only too willing to point out the similarities between the health care law that Romney signed as governor and the one President Obama pushed nationally last year.
For Romney then, this speech amounts to a chance to take on that criticism once and for all and, his political team hopes,begin shifting health care debate to President Obama’s plan and why it’s wrong for the country.
“He’s going out early and will be on offense when it comes to repealing Obamacare,” said one Romney aide to speak candidly about the strategy behind the speech.
What Romney won’t do, according to aides, is apologize for signing the health care law in Massachusetts.
Instead, he will, in essence, double down on the argument he has made about the Massachusetts plan for the past 18 months or so — that it was the right decision for that state at that particularly time and was never meant as a national model.
Some GOP strategists are skeptical that anything short of a full apology will solve Romney’s political problems on the issue, however.
“He needs to say ‘It was a mistake. We had good intentions, but it didn’t work,’” said one Republican consultant not aligned with any candidate in the 2012 presidential race. “He should have done that a long time ago.”
Apologies, of course, have a mixed record in presidential politics. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards publicly apologized for his vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq but still came up short in his quest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Then Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) chose not to apologize for that same vote during the race and, like Edwards, came up short against Barack Obama — although by the end of that primary race Iraq was barely a topic of conversation.
(It is a worthy argument, however, as to whether her Iraq vote provided Obama with an opening to run that he might not have otherwise had.)
Already in the 2012 Republican presidential race apologies are cropping up.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has issued a mea culpa for his past support of cap and trade energy legislation; “I’ve said I was wrong. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry,” Pawlenty said at last week’s Republican presidential debate.
And, former House Speaker Newt Gingric h has issued an apology — of sorts — about his at-times turbulent personal life. (He has been married three times.)
“There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” Gingrich told Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody in an interview in March. “I found that I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who supported Romney in 2008, said Tuesday that he was brave for trying something new. “[H]e actually showed a lot of courage to say ‘I’m going to get out there and try and see if this is going to work.’” she said. However, she added, he needs to “make sure that he says this is not going to national.” Of course, Romney has already made that argument numerous times.
Expect Romney and his political team to cast his refusal to apologize for the Massachusetts health care law as an example of him taking a principled stand — refusing to walk away from a past position simply because it would be more politically expedient to do so.
That, of course, is an attempt to rebut the long-standing criticism of Romney as flip-flopper that took root during the 2008 campaign. The calculation seems to be that Romney would incur more political damage from backing down or apologizing on health care than he will for standing up for what he did in Massachusetts and trying to move the conversation beyond that law to a broader focus on Obama’s national health care legislation.
“At the end of the day, the right thing to say is what he really believes,” said Alex Castellanos, who advised Romney during the 2008 campaign but is not affiliated with him this time around. “He should say that and let the chips fall where they may.”
Will it work?
Much of that depends on Romney’s performance on Thursday.
Remember that Obama was in political triage mode when he made the decision to deliver a speech on race in the spring of 2008. The content of the speech — and the efficacy of Obama’s delivery — managed to not only stop the bleeding for him on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright issue but also served to reinforce the idea that he was a potentially transformational figure in American politics.
Romney doesn’t have the rhetorical gifts of Obama but will try to do much the same thing in his health care speech. The goal will be to not only put the Massachusetts health care law behind him but also to use it as a pivot point to talk from a point of strength about the wrong-headedness of Obama’s approach on the national level.
It’s a tall order but one that is essential to the winning calculus for Romney in the race.