I'm having trouble wrapping my head around the strategic thinking behind the decision to put Mitt Romney out front on the health care issue, by having him give a hyped-up, self described "important" speech on the topic this afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There must be a strategy, whether I think it's wise or not -- this campaign does nothing without careful deliberation.
I don't buy that they simply think he can put the issue to rest by addressing it head-on. These are not stupid people. They must know that this will actually serve to inform many Republican voters -- lots of whom are not nearly as hyper-aware of Massachusetts's legislative history as you might assume -- about his heretical history on the issue. Not that those voter wouldn't have learned about it along the way, but this speech (and the entirely predictable accompanying airing of his past actions and remarks) ensures that it will be embedded in more of their minds before he even begins the process of introducing himself and his campaign themes to them. It will also start the campaign off with a round of discussion about Romney's authenticity/flip-flopping image problem, which serves to reinforce that image. Plus, being the first candidate to introduce a major new plan in a controversial subject area is guaranteed to provoke criticism -- I suggested yesterday that he is walking into an abortion trap, and he will also certainly be pounded on the potential deficit implications.
I will also note, more as an aside, that Romney seems determined to ignore my sage advice on how he might win the nomination. Instead of bursting out of the campaign bubble, he has become the hermetically-sealed candidate; today's speech is reportedly invitation-only, was preceded by a national op-ed, and does not appear to involve any subsequent interviews, press availabilities, or meet-the-people events. He also continues to phony himself up, wearing jeans in public and going tieless for speeches, and trying to sprinkle his speech with Tea Party language. And rather than steadily laying the groundwork in early states, with the long view toward the final weeks of the campaign, he is acting like he needs to establish himself from the start as the national-level, super-funded, too-important-for-commoners Bigfoot of the race.
But back to the speech, and perhaps the most important strategic problem with it: it seems like Romney's diving right back into the mistake he insists he learned from last time: playing ball on the other guys' field.
It is one of my campaign rules of thumb -- to the extent you can, you want the conversation to be on the topics where you win politically, even if you're losing that round of the conversation. If your political strength is foreign policy, then you should loudly engage whenever an opponent tries to hurt you on foreign policy, to elevate the importance and attention of that issue in the campaign. If foreign policy is your political weakness, then you should let the attack go and do its damage, while you do what you can to change the topic.
Romney and his people clearly believe that during the '08 cycle, he was so intent on convincing conservatives that he was strong on abortion, gay rights, and other social issues, he essentially killed himself by playing the whole campaign on the other guys' field. So, isn't he doing the same thing now, just on a different bad issue?
Maybe he really does think his health care problem is so great that he just has to do it. But it's possible that there are other strategic thoughts at work.
For one thing, it's possible that the campaign is planning to use this as the moment to unleash the support of the party elites and movement influencers. As I've written, it's been pretty remarkable to me how they've all let their presumptive frontrunner twist in the wind over this issue, when they could easily have been defending him, criticizing the attacks, and/or tamping down the focus on it. That, in my opinion, is how Romney overcomes the problem -- and I've taken the fact that it hasn't been happening as a strong sign that those elites and influencers are not interested in saving Romney. (For an example of how this phenomenon works, note how they've let Newt Gingrich get pummeled over his marital history, compared with how they quashed discussion of John McCain's marital history and other dirty laundry.) But it's possible that he's been gearing it up for one big transitional moment: that he's pushing for people like Karl Rove, and various Senators, and TV and radio yappers, and columnists and bloggers, to spend the next few days pushing the line and sending the signal that this brilliant speech successfully ended the issue and we should all speak no more about it. Maybe.
It's also possible that the campaign believes that this is a field they want to play on. Maybe they have polling that shows that, while GOP voters think poorly of Romney when they hear about "RomneyCare," talking about the issue actually makes them feel positive about him -- that it shows him as an idea guy, a doer, an effective executive, a problem-attacker, even if they think he screwed up on that one issue.
I'm leaning toward that theory -- and it might even be the smart strategy. It's better than letting the campaign focus on abortion, certainly.