Mitt Romney leaped into the deep waters of debate over the future course of Republican Party policy Tuesday night in a speech near the shores of New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee where the former GOP presidential candidate has a vacation home.
Mr. Romney, who described himself as a “severe conservative” during the 2012 campaign, appeared to side with the pragmatic wing of his party with most of his remarks, made at a political fundraiser for the New Hampshire Republican Party. In particular, he warned against shutting down the government in an attempt to strip funds from the Affordable Care Act, known informally as “Obamacare."
“I badly want Obamacare to go away, and stripping it of funds has appeal. But we need to exercise great care about any talk of shutting down government,” Romney said. “What would come next when soldiers aren’t paid, when seniors fear for their Medicare and Social Security, and when the FBI is off duty?”
What would come next, in Romney’s eyes, is a predictable political failure: Voters would revolt, Obamacare would get its money after all, and Republicans would be hurt at the polls, as Washington conventional wisdom holds they were following the 28-day government shutdown of 1995 and '96.
“I think there are better ways to remove Obamacare,” he added.
However, he didn’t go on to say what those notional “better ways” were. Rolling back time and electing him, perhaps?
Romney also urged Republicans to rally behind electable candidates, not those who appeal to the party base but frighten moderates. He didn’t name any names here – he did not, for instance, mutter “Sen. Ted Cruz” under his breath. And he did acknowledge that this advice might be ironic coming from someone who billed himself as the electable choice, only to be proven wrong at the polls.
“My guess is that every one of the [2016 GOP presidential] contenders would be better than whoever the Democrats put up,” Romney said. “But there will only be one or perhaps two who actually could win the election in November.”
Conservative GOP leaders and tea party activists were dismissive of Romney’s advice, saying in essence that the speech revealed him as the squish they had suspected all along.
“Romney did not want to fight to repeal Obamacare while he was on the campaign so it is no surprise he would not fight now,” Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin told the conservative Breitbart News.
“The last person the conservative movement should turn to for winning advice is Mitt Romney,” added For America chairman Brent Bozell, according to Breitbart.
So what’s going on here? Why did Romney feel it necessary to offer remarks he must have known would inflame some in his own party?
Well, for one thing, consider the venue: The Granite State is pretty flinty, but it’s not deep red. As polling guru Nate Silver has pointed out, it’s one of the most “elastic” of US swing states, meaning it’s possible to persuade large numbers of voters to actually change minds and vote for either party. (Non-elastic swing states are just evenly balanced between Democrats and Republicans, with victory hinging on turnout and party enthusiasm.)
In that context, the Mittster was saying stuff tailored to appeal to his actual physical audience. The relatively moderate New Hampshire GOP is unlikely to support brinkmanship in Washington.
In essence, he was also siding with the wing of the party that pushed him to the nomination. He was always the establishment candidate, backed by lists of governors and elected Republicans in Washington. The party leadership in D.C. remains nervous about the defund Obamacare strategy. It’s nonleadership figures such as Senator Cruz of Texas and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah who are calling for the ACA fight.
If he’s going to maintain a role in party politics, as he’s said he’d like to do, it’s unlikely to involve his evolution into a tea party maverick.
Finally, here’s the wild theory: He doesn’t mean it. He believes the threat of government shutdown to end Obamacare might work. But he knows he is now so widely discounted in Republican circles that few will heed his advice. So he’s employing reverse psychology.
“Are we at the point where Romney should tell the GOP the opposite of what he really wants it to do? Might be more effective that way,” tweeted Washington Post political reporter Aaron Blake on Wednesday.