Obviously, it is very, very early to discuss the shape of the 2012 presidential campaign, and a great deal could--and probably will--happen between now and then to scramble the current political narrative. Still, I have two questions regarding the possible contours of the race on the Republican side, one narrow and one broad.
First, assuming that health care reform passes, and that it remains a, if not the, primary example on the right of Obama's "socialism," how much will it complicate Mitt Romney's candidacy that the legislation is likely to bear considerable similarity to the reforms he pushed through as governor of Massachusetts? In a speech to the Values Voter Summit over the weekend, he spent some time explaining how his reforms and Obama's are not the same:
[T]his Republican worked to reform healthcare in my own state. Not every feature of our plan is perfect, but the lesson it teaches is this: We can get everyone insured, without breaking the bank and without a government option—there is no government insurance in my Massachusetts reform. The right answer for health care is not more government, it’s less government.
President Obama says he wants “public option government insurance,” to give people “greater choice.”... What he won’t say is what he really wants: a public option that over time becomes the only option.
Focusing on the public option may be a way to differentiate Obama's reform from his own right now, but if the bill that finally passes doesn't have a public option Romney is going to be forced to make still finer distinctions between Obama's "socialism" and his own. And, regardless, the defensiveness I think you can already see in this speech will only get worse in a GOP primary in which his opponents will be pushing the (essentially accurate) line that he's a phony conservative who, as a blue state governor, passed his own version of Obamacare.
The second, broader question is this: There is always a tension, in both parties, between the base-pandering that needs to be done to get the nomination and the move to the center that improves one's chances in the general. But if the GOP base remains as radicalized as it is at this point, that tension could increase substantially for Republican candidates in 2012. The base may be relatively small, but it will be very hard to win the nomination without its substantial support, and the appeasements that this will require could make moving back to the center a longer, trickier voyage than usual.