GOP, campaign need to talk

When Rick Santorum called former rival Mitt Romney “the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama,” because of the former governor’s ties to health care reform in Massachusetts, he had no idea the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the constitutionality of the federal law.

Now that it has done so, we’re sure there’s something else he would like to say: “I told you so.”

For of all the Republican candidates committed to taking it to the president over his signature national health care law, it turns out Romney may indeed face the biggest challenge in making the criticism stick.

That has become increasingly clear in recent days as the campaign struggles to get in sync with Republican Party leaders over the most effective way to use the court’s ruling to their political advantage.

Ever since Chief Justice John Roberts tipped the scales in favor of the law by calling the individual mandate a “tax,” top Republicans have been tripping over themselves to hang that word around the president’s neck like the metaphorical albatross in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

In fact, the GOP message machine was sailing along smoothly until it ran aground due to an unlikely source.

Enter Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, who inflicted a serious blow to the GOP’s ill-advised strategy by acknowledging Monday that his boss agrees with the president that the mandate is a “penalty” – not a “tax.”

We say “ill-advised” because the Romney campaign didn’t have much choice when confronted with the tax question. To agree that the mandate was a tax would have meant admitting he raised taxes as governor when he championed the adoption of a health care law on which the Obama administration’s federal law is based.

That would have run counter to Romney’s long-standing argument that he didn’t raise taxes as governor, though his administration did raise numerous fees to meet a $3 billion budget shortfall upon assuming office in 2003.

Ironically, the dustup between GOP leaders and the Romney campaign comes on the heels of a recent study that speaks positively of the Massachusetts health care system that Santorum derided as “Romneycare.”

The study, conducted by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, found that between 2006 and 2010:

An estimated 400,000 more individuals had insurance than in 2006, which means roughly 98 percent of state residents carry insurance coverage – the highest rate in the nation.

The use of emergency rooms for more routine care dropped by nearly 4 percent, in keeping with a major goal of the law.

And the number of adults who received insurance coverage through their employers rose during that period – from 64 percent to 68 percent – erasing early fears that employers might be inclined to drop coverage as a result of the law.

Now, none of this is intended to suggest that Romney is the wrong candidate to lead his party – we felt he was the strongest candidate in the GOP field leading up to the New Hampshire primary and don’t feel any differently today.

But if Republicans are serious about taking back the White House, they might want to reconsider doubling down on their “Obamacare” strategy and identify some issues where their candidate and the president actually disagree.