The Progressive Fix

Wingnut Watch: Conservatives Savage Romney’s Health Care, Huckabee Sits It Out

Presidential politics was again the focus of Wingnut World last week, as conservative opinion-leaders took the opportunity to savage Mitt Romney for his adamant defense of the Massachusetts health reform plan, while mulling over the decision of controversial fellow-traveler Mike Huckabee to stay on the sidelines in 2012.

Romney took the calculated risk of delivering a self-hyped “major speech” on health reform at the University of Michigan, apparently in hopes that a definitive statement on the subject would flush out and eventually diminish conservative anger at him on the subject before Republicans actually begin voting next year. It certainly flushed out negative opinions on the Right. Even before the speech was delivered, Romney took a pounding from the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which rightly predicted he would refuse to back down on the wisdom of backing a state reform plan that included an individual insurance purchasing mandate and other features associated with “ObamaCare.” The title of the op-ed says it all: “Obama’s Running Mate.”

The speech itself was a hodge-podge of arguments and rationalizations. Romney alternated between what progressive health wonk Jonathan Cohn called an “inspiring” defense of his reasoning in signing the Massachusetts law, and less-than-compelling claims that the law had no implications for national health policy. The conservative commentariat has long since rejected as inadequate his “federalism defense” that “RomneyCare” was a system designed for Massachusetts only, which is unsurprising since the individual mandate is the specific target of a host of state lawsuits aimed at overturning ObamaCare. Moreover, the proto-candidate’s effort to change the subject to what he would propose as president after a theoretical repeal of national health reform legislation drew virtually no attention, probably because he simply endorsed every conventional conservative gimmick of recent years—a tax credit for the purchase of individual insurance policies, preemption of state regulation of private health insurance via interstate sales, and medical malpractice reform.

Only time will tell if Team Romney is right that hostility to RomneyCare will burn itself out, much as John McCain’s many past heresies against conservative orthodoxy were ultimately forgiven in 2008, leaving Republican elites to focus on his superior “electability.” But Romney’s not off to a very good start. Among his tormenters after the speech were the editors of National Review, who gave him a crucial endorsement in 2008. After rejecting Romney’s federalism argument that an individual mandate was acceptable at the state level, his one-time fans at NR made this brutal assessment of the political thinking behind the speech:

We understand that Romney does not feel that he can flip-flop on what he had touted as his signature accomplishment in office. But if there is one thing we would expect a successful businessman to know, it is when to walk away from a failed investment.

This is in synch with the advice Romney has been receiving from Sen. Jim DeMint of SC, another key 2008 supporter who is vastly more influential today.

Later in the week, conservative chattering class attention was diverted to Romney’s 2008 nemesis, Mike Huckabee, who stage-managed an announcement of non-candidacy on his Fox show Saturday after touching off an orgy of confused speculation about his plans by issuing a variety of mixed signals.

His Saturday show was quite a spectacle. It included a derisive panel discussion of Romney’s health care speech, a bizarre interview with right-wing rocker Ted Nugent—who discussed his proposal to unleash the Navy Seals to “secure” U.S. borders with mega-violence—who then took the stage to perform “Cat Scratch Fever” with Huck on bass, followed by a videotaped benediction from Donald Trump. Near the end of the show, Huckabee faced the cameras and detailed all the reasons he should run for president, before divulging that God had persuaded him otherwise via prayer.

For all the hype and the alleged divine intervention, Huck’s decision was precisely what the conventional wisdom had long predicted, mainly because of his palpable reluctance to give up the Fox show and a new-found personal wealth to go trudging through the pot-luck dinner circuit of Iowa once again. At fifty-five, Huckabee is also young enough to consider running in 2016 or even later.

Assessments of the impact on the 2012 race of Huckabee’s non-candidacy have been mixed, but there’s a general consensus that it provides an opening for other outspoken social conservative in Iowa, while limiting the southerners in the field to the not-very-southern Newt Gingrich and African-American Herman Cain. In both respects, this could be very good news for smart-money favorite Tim Pawlenty, who is by all accounts out-organizing his rivals in Iowa and is clearly acceptable to the Christian Right and can now seriously contemplate a breakthrough in southern states beginning with South Carolina.

Speaking of Tim Pawlenty and South Carolina, a fascinating subplot in the presidential contest has been unfolding after Gov. Nikki Haley demanded that all the candidates side with her in attacks on the National Labor Relations Board, which has at least temporarily stopped the relocation of jobs by Boeing from Washington to SC in the wake of disputes with the machinists union. Haley, it should be noted, has trumped the usual conservative bashing of public-sector unions by arguing that private-sector unionism is incompatible with economic growth (she appointed a “management” labor attorney as her state labor department chief with the explicit mission of keeping unions out of the state to the maximum extent possible). Pawlenty won the race to first kiss Haley’s ring on the Boeing issue, though the other candidates are quickly following. This helps reinforce the impression that Pawlenty’s strategy—ironically, much like Mitt Romney’s in 2008—is to supplement his “moderate-governor-of-a-blue-state” background with an effort to do whatever he is told by conservative activists. He hasn’t turned them down yet.

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