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Health Care Plan Gives Romney Boost in GOP Field

By Reihan Salam

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's chances in the presidential sweepstakes have just gone from "decent" to "excellent." By successfully brokering legislation that promises to "solve" the health care problem in Massachusetts, Romney has instantly become, in President Bush's long-since-forgotten slogan from 2000, a "reformer with results."

After Hurricane Katrina, David Ignatius hit upon the public's desire for a " party of performance." Given the continuing turmoil in Iraq and the Bush administration's manifest failure to tackle health care, there's every reason to believe that the next president will be a domestic problem-solver, not an ideologue or a sweeping visionary. In this contest, an energetic executive like Romney has inherent advantages over inside-the-beltway players like John McCain, Bill Frist and George Allen. And by fighting on Democratic turf--in this case, by tackling the problem of the uninsured and the underinsured head on--Romney compounds those advantages. Provided he continues to aggressively push market-friendly domestic reforms that address pocketbook concerns, he will have a powerful weapon against his Republican rivals, most of whom are tainted to one degree or another by the "incompetent conservatism" of the Bush era.

Thanks to his organizational prowess, Romney has already moved ahead of Virginia Senator George Allen in many respects. Allen's looming reelection fight - in which he's being challenged by Republican-turned-Dem James Webb - will also prove a boon to the Massachusetts governor. Because Allen has subtly changed his position on abortion and the Federal Marriage Amendment, it will be difficult for him to use Romney's shifting views on social issues as a point of entry for attacks. Romney's real target is John McCain. And McCain, easily one of the most gifted, charismatic politicians of our time, has good reason to be concerned.

But why would that be? McCain is the original bipartisan reformer, after all. Given his carefully cultivated reputation as a moderate willing to work closely with Democrats on campaign finance reform, a patient's bill of rights, global warming, immigration, and spending restraint, you'd think McCain would simply own voters looking to back "the party of performance." Yet it is increasingly clear that he has chosen the wrong issues on which to embrace a more moderate, results-oriented view, both in light of Republican biases and the likely general election landscape.

(1) Campaign finance reform was never a burning issue for voters. Rather, it was an issue of totemic significance, particularly for journalists and a narrow slice of the upper-middle-class, that pitted McCain against much of the Republican base. Achieving a victory on this front certainly generated "good vibes," for a time, but it's left little in the way of lasting voter loyalty. Moreover, McCain's efforts set very high standards for ethical behavior that can and in fact have been used against him. Every time McCain raises funds for, say, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, he will be accused--fairly or unfairly--of rank hypocrisy. Worse yet, it is hard to argue that the McCain-Feingold legislation has been a success. McCain's conservative opponents feel vindicated--the legislation solved nothing, and may have made matters worse. His allies are dissatisfied. To say the very least, this doesn't bode well.

(2) Similarly, the patient's bill of rights appears--again, fairly or unfairly--to have solved nothing. It has not made insurance coverage more widespread, it has not reduced the number of medical bankruptcies, and it doesn't seem to have improved the quality of medical care for very many, if any, voters.

(3) Global warming is a worthy cause, and yet the winners from any forward movement on the issue are a large, diffuse, mostly indifferent group. The losers are a small, focused, and intensely engaged group. That's never a good thing in an election.

(4) Then there is immigration. Insofar as the desire for immigration reform stems from a general sense of unease about rapid demographic change, economic insecurity, and a strongly-held belief that law and order has broken down, it seems unlikely that any legislation that deemphasizes stemming the low-skill influx in favor of legalizing the existing illegal population and actually increasing the size of the low-skill influx will win McCain many friends among Republicans.

(5) Finally, spending restraint, one area where McCain is very much in tune with the Republican intelligentsia, is not an obvious winner against the old Clinton battle-cry of "M2E2"--Medicare, Medicaid, Education, and the Environment. Root-canal economics was unpopular in the 1980s, and it remains unpopular today, elite opinion notwithstanding.

This isn't to suggest that all hope is lost for McCain. Far from it. He can blunt the Romney challenge by broadening the scope of his reformist ambitions. For example, he would be wise to articulate a "family-friendly" economic message. But McCain is famously stubborn, and it's by no means clear that he appreciates the bind he's in.

And Romney's vulnerabilities are real. First and perhaps most obviously, he is the governor of a lopsidedly Democratic state, far from the demographic heart of the Republican majority. To win in Massachusetts, Republicans have tended to embrace social liberalism. Romney, in his 1994 bid for the Senate and in his successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign, was no exception. Pivoting to a more conservative stance for a national race thus opens Romney to the charge--not entirely unfair--of "flip-flopping,"

Romney's religion is another sticking point. The conservative press has, with only rare exceptions, underestimated the extent to which his Mormon beliefs will prove a liability in key primary states, among them South Carolina. As Amy Sullivan argued last year in the Washington Monthly, evangelical unease with Mormonism runs very deep. Indeed, it's quite possible that what can only be described as anti-Mormon sentiment cost former Republican congressman Matt Salmon the Arizona governor's office in 2002. Call it bigotry or old-fashioned identity politics, the Mormon Church will be issue, whether publicly or behind-the-scenes.

Then there is the fact that Romney has no foreign policy experience. Could the war on terror obviate the traditional advantage of Washington outsiders over Washington insiders in a presidential race? In light of Romney's much-praised intellect and his intimidating background in the world of high-stakes international business, one can only assume he'd hold his own in a debate. Indeed, his very distance from Washington gives him the freedom to stake out a distinctive foreign policy position that reinforces a general message of tough-minded pragmatism.

Now all Romney has to worry about is Rudy Giuliani.

(Correction: I mistakenly assumed that the "patient's bill of rights" measure had passed. I was wrong. The proposal never made it past the House. I apologize for this oversight.)

Reihan Salam is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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