Romney's speech yesterday has gotten mostly bad reviews (Chris Christie spoke up for Romney.) I'm not sure what the point of the speech was if he was just going to repeat the same talking points about Obamacare and Romneycare he has been saying for about a year now. His points seem to be:
1. Wave his hand in your direction and then, in British accent, say, "These are not the glaringly obvious policy similarities you are looking for."
2. Tell you that the Romneycare/Obamacare approach of coverage mandates + individual purchase mandates + subsidies + guaranteed issue + community rating (the last two predated, but were incorporated into Romneycare) is, for some unarticulated reason good for Massachusetts but not for 49 other states.
3. Have a federal reform strategy that is at odds with his record as governor. He wants tort reform, and the ability to purchase insurance across state lines. That's great, but those policies can be implemented in one state. He didn't accomplish that. His actual record in Massachusetts looks more like Obamacare in one state rather than market-oriented health care reform in one state.
The increased salience of the health care issue, and the similarities between Obamacare and Romneycare are a big problem for Romney. Romney had four major appeals going for him in 2008. They were:
1. He was brilliant businessman who understood how the economy works.
2. He was (after his social policy makeover) the most orthodox conservative of the major contenders for the nomination on the most salient issues of the moment (unlike the tax raising Huckabee and the pro-amnesty McCain.) Romney was supported by National Review. He had the passive support of much of conservative talk radio. It wasn't so much that the major voices were for him as much as they were against Huckabee and McCain, but it was something.
3. He was a competent governor of Massachusetts.
4. His ability to win in Massachusetts suggested that he could win a national election.
His appeal as a businessman/economics guy is still mostly intact, but the rising premiums in Massachusetts might put something of a dent in the idea that he is great on economics. His appeal as an orthodox conservative (always shaky) is shattered. His appeal as a competent governor might still work but it is going to be tough making that argument to a right-leaning Republican primary electorate who will probably dislike with his signature achievement. His electability appeal might come into play depending on how the Republican primary process plays out.
Romney's health care policy weaknesses have reduced him to his (significant) bedrock assets. He has name recognition and a national organization. He will have enough money to run as many ads as he wants. If he wants to hit another candidate, everybody will see the attack ads plenty of times. Romney will be as ruthless in his attack ads as he feels he needs to be. He will say whatever he thinks will help him get elected. People might question his authenticity, but pretty much everyone agrees that Romney is sane and well informed.
Romney is in a tough position, but he is not necessarily doomed. I can see a scenario where the Republican presidential primary race winnows down to Romney and another candidate whose personal/stylistic/electoral disabilities convince a majority of the voters to put aside their concerns about Romney and vote for him as the lesser evil. That means that Romney needs to turn the Republican nomination contest into a desperately constrained choice between himself and some "unelectable" conservative identity politics-oriented candidate (maybe Gingrich or Bachmann) with appalling approval ratings among independents. But getting to that kind of two person race is going to be the real challenge for Romney. Before he can beat a Bachmann or a Gingrich (and it isn't 100% certain that he would), he would first have to destroy Pawlenty and Daniels early in the nominating process.
I wouldn't be on this scenario. I think it is more likely that Romney's popular and institutional support melts away before Christmas. But stranger things have happened.