Mitt Romney’s press secretary Andrea Saul brought the full wrath of the GOP’s right-wing down on her unsuspecting head today by suggesting that Romney is, you know, proud of his signature health care bill. The scene of the crime was a Fox News discussion of an ad implying that a woman died because her husband lost his insurance when a Bain-controlled plant laid him off. To this Saul responded, not unreasonably, that, “[I]f people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care.”
But, then, what is “reason” when you’re up against your party’s id? Conservative blogger Erick Erickson promptly announced that Saul’s foray into health-care wonkery could “mark the day the Romney campaign died,” since it would send the right’s thinly-suppressed doubts gushing to the surface. “Consider the scab picked, the wound opened, and the distrust trickling out again,” he wrote. Then, later in the day, the conservative performance-artist Ann Coulter dropped by Fox News to chat up her buddy Sean Hannity and issue a fatwa against Saul, urging Republican donors to go on strike until Saul is unemployed.
As we await the Romney campaign’s decision about Saul’s fate, it’s worth reflecting on one under-reported aspect of this latest conservative blow-up: Saul was saying precisely what her superiors in the Romney campaign believe, not least of them Mitt Romney.
I spent a lot of time talking to Romney campaign officials while reporting my recent profile of Stuart Stevens, his chief strategist. The unmistakable impression I got from them is that, to this day, Romney remains extremely proud of having passed health care reform in Massachusetts. As I write in the piece, it’s one reason Romney hired Stevens in the first place:
In 2012, Stevens sought to reprise the attack strategy for Romney, except with an added wrinkle. Rather than simply knee-cap his conservative rivals, Romney would also channel the country’s frustration with Obama. This would appeal to the base, which considered the president illegitimate, without alienating general election voters, who considered Obama’s economic policies a failure. Romney could capture the nomination without moving rightward. He wouldn’t even have to renounce his own health care plan so long as he was sufficiently scathing toward Obamacare.
Somewhat unusually for a presidential candidate, Romney has been deeply involved in hashing out his own campaign strategy. “Romney plays a big role in the strategic direction,” says one Romney aide. “Stuart is the artiste.” And Romney liked what he heard. He was especially hesitant to abandon his health care record and was heartened that Stevens urged him not to [emphasis added].
Saul was surely aware of this—as I say, it’s common knowledge in Romneyworld. So it’s no surprise that she grasped for it while defending her boss on television.
Unfortunately for Saul and Romney, the whole episode confirms the main conclusion of my piece, which is that the campaign has massively underestimated the fever on the right from the very beginning, and that this underestimation continues to complicate their lives in all sorts of ways.
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