The speech is being closely watched by presidential handicappers since Romney has spent much of the last 18 months dogged by his decision to sign a health care bill as governor that has drawn unfavorable comparisons in GOP circles to the national health care law pushed by President Obama.
Before Romney even utters a word today there’s already a lot we know about what’s in the speech, what it aims to do and how it will be received.
Here’s a look at what we know.
* Not much new under the sun: From a policy perspective, Romney is expected to largely re-state the health care principles he outlined during the 2008 campaign. In a USA Today op-ed previewing the speech, Romney laid out a handful of foundational principles on health care that include a state-based focus, broadening access by slowing cost increases and making health insurance “portable and flexible for today’s economy”. The difference between 2008 and today then is that Obama’s plan is in place. That allows Romney to call for the repeal of the current law — a popular sentiment among GOP activists — and then pivot to a detailed explanation of what he would replace it with. The question for Romney is whether a plan that is largely a rehash of what he has said before on the subject will be enough to knock whatever he says about the Massachusetts law out of the headlines. Not likely.
* No apologies: It’s not totally clear yet how much time Romney will spend on what happened in Massachusetts — our bet is not much — but what we do know is that Romney won’t apologize for what he did in the Bay State. His allies believe that standing up for the rightness of that solution at that time in that particular state is evidence that he is sticking to his guns despite the slings and arrows he will face for it. (Mixed metaphor alert!) Implicit in that stance is the sense that during the 2008 campaign Romney struggled under the perception that he was a flip-flopper who believed in almost nothing. By not apologizing, however, Romney is handing each of his rivals a ready-made attack during the debates to come. It doesn’t take much imagination to see former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty or Rep. Michele Bachmann asking Romney why he won’t apologize for the law — and then asking again and again — in one of the many GOP debates to come.
* Pre-speech buzz=not good: The attempt to build some positive buzz in the runup to today’s speech hit a brick wall yesterday. Actually, two brick walls. First came the news — unearthed by a liberal Massachusetts blog — that Romney had supported the idea of mandating individuals to have health insurance on a national level in the 1990s, a major no-no for conservatives. Then came a stinging editorial in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Obama’s Running Mate” (so you kind of know where this is headed) that blasted Romney for the law he signed in Massachusetts. “For a potential President whose core argument is that he knows how to revive free market economic growth, this amounts to a fatal flaw,” wrote the Journal of the plan Romney backed during his time as governor. Gail Gitcho, communications director for Romney’s presidential exploratory committee, shot back that the paper “has been writing editorials against the Massachusetts health care plan since before the plan was actually put into place”. Still, the Journal is influential in conservative intellectual circles and such a stern rebuke of Romney will be brought up time and again over the next year.
* Laying a marker: Romney and his political team are smart enough to know that by a) not apologizing and b) not offering a fundamentally new plan that he won’t put the issue behind him for the remainder of the campaign. “We didn’t go into today expecting to quiet the critics,” said Gitcho. So, why give the speech at all? Because Romney wants to put the Massachusetts law firmly in the past and force the conversation toward the future — with a particular focus on what to do about the current health care law . Giving this speech now — before he is even an officially announced candidate — allows Romney to regularly cite it anytime he is challenged on the Massachusetts law in the campaign to come. Expect to hear a lot of “I would refer you back to what I said in a speech in May” or “This is old news....I’ve laid out my plan for how to get it right in the future” from Romney in the coming weeks and months.