Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts has most Republicans hopeful about midterm elections. It has Mitt Romney hopeful about 2012.
In many ways, the former Bay State governor never ended his 2008 presidential campaign. From a perch atop his Free and Strong America PAC, Mr. Romney has been raising money, nurturing his team, keeping himself in the national spotlight. With the Massachusetts Senate race, he sensed an unexpected opportunity to step to the front of the GOP presidential ranks.
He played it nicely. Aware that many voters have mixed views of his governorship, Mr. Romney stayed in the shadows, leaving other notables to stump with Mr. Brown. Behind the scenes was a different story.
Mr. Romney headlined fundraisers for the little-known state senator and used his own national mailing list to help raise dollars. He called on supporters to make calls on Mr. Brown's behalf, and he harnessed his media operations to bolster the candidate.
His closest aides flooded to Mr. Brown, bringing with them the savvy of a national operation. Beth Lindstrom, a cabinet official in the Romney administration, served as Mr. Brown's campaign manager. Also in Brown HQ were Beth Myers, Mr. Romney's presidential campaign manager, and Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, who worked on the now-famous TV spots showing a tax-cutting John F. Kennedy morphing into Mr. Brown.
Mr. Romney got his due on election night. He was the first political figure Mr. Brown thanked for helping "show us the way to victory." Romney allies had already been busy touting his role.
"There's no one who has done more behind the scenes and in front of the scenes than Mitt," Republican National Committee member Ron Kaufman told Politico—two days before the election.
By midweek, the political pundits decreed Mr. Romney the other big winner. Some went so far as to credit him with the 41st vote, potentially saving the nation from ObamaCare. In doing so, they unwittingly touched on the flip side of this week's race. For all the benefits this contest held for the former governor, it also churned up what will prove the biggest obstacle to Romney 2012.
Mr. Brown brazenly turned his Senate bid into a referendum on President Obama's health plan, and voters rewarded him with a job. Yet ObamaCare's model was the health reform inflicted on Massachusetts by a certain Republican governor in 2006, otherwise known as RomneyCare.
That precursor shares many elements of Washington's legislation, from an individual mandate, to employer taxes, to subsidized middle-class insurance. The program has bombed, creating giant costs while realizing minimal benefits. A big reason only 25% of Massachusetts voters strongly approve of ObamaCare is because of this experience.
The state plan has become a millstone for Mr. Romney, yet he has refused to disavow it. Had he campaigned with Mr. Brown he'd have undoubtedly been asked about it, and undoubtedly given an answer as unsatisfying as those to date.
Mr. Romney has at times put forward selective data suggesting the program's costs aren't exploding. At other times he has complained his state hasn't done enough to control costs. By October of last year he was arguing on CNN that "We . . . didn't have any pretense we would somehow be able to change health-care costs in Massachusetts." This, despite promising in 2006 that under his plan "the costs of health care will be reduced."
Through it all, Mr. Romney has never backed away from his individual mandate, which requires people to buy insurance or pay a fine. Yet Republicans and independents despise the mandate, with many believing it is downright unconstitutional.
Mr. Romney's subsidized coverage is meanwhile doing what entitlements do: crowding out private insurers, compounding the cost explosion, walking the state toward rationing. So long as the former governor clings to these central points of his health plan, he's on the wrong side of free-market policy and public opinion.
That might be why in December Mr. Romney shifted again, saying his program differed significantly from ObamaCare in that it "solved" the "problem" at the state level, and featured no public option. But the public option argument has gone poof. And while GOP primary voters care about federalism, most will be hard pressed to parse the difference between a failed state program and a failed federal one.
This ugly fact, take note, nearly swept up the Brown candidacy. A week before the election, Fox News's Neil Cavuto dared ask Mr. Brown how he could oppose Washington's plan, given that he voted for RomneyCare as a state legislator. Mr. Brown—perhaps unwilling to upset his political patron—claimed that they were "two different programs." He argued that the Massachusetts plan, in contrast to ObamaCare, was a "free-market enterprise." Lucky for Mr. Brown, the liberal blogs didn't seize on his comments until too late. But he'll be asked for further explanation in Washington.
This isn't going away for Mr. Romney either, which is why he'd do better by writing off his own plan as a mistake that Democrats have made worse, and replacing it with a proposal that deregulates and reforms the private market to lower insurance costs (thereby achieving greater coverage). If Mr. Romney hopes to capitalize on this week's Senate race, he'll first have to heed its health-care lessons.
KIM STRASSEL AT THE WSJ
Home Again, Home Again - It's good to be home, We were gone almost three weeks, The weather in Fayetteville was gorgeous, highs in the eighties and clear skies almost all the time....