The passage of health care reform may have had the unintended side effect of winnowing the 2012 presidential field.  While the 2012 Republican convention is over two years away, an eternity in politics, Mitt Romney may have just seen his hopes of securing the Republican nomination go up in smoke.

Romney’s ambitions and his willingness to adapt his positions to the prevailing winds are no secret.  Even by the low standards of politicians he displayed a chameleon like ability to change his colors for the prevailing audience and the brazen chutzpah to attack people for holding positions he held a short while before.  This made him very unpopular among his fellow Republican candidates notably John McCain and Mike Huckabee who barely concealed their disdain for him.  The 2007-8 Republican presidential debates often degenerated into “whack-a-Mitt” sessions where all the candidates ganged up in the self funded Romney with cheerful glee.  See link.  His Mormon faith also acted as a handicap as the Republican evangelical base looked at him with suspicion.

When John McCain all but wrapped up the Republican nomination the ever malleable Romney promptly dropped out to stump for McCain in hopes of securing the Vice Presidential nod.  Unfortunately all that sucking up came to naught when McCain went for the wonderfully clueless Sarah Palin.

In the aftermath of the elections Romney has tried to reposition himself as the only remaining adult among the Republican candidates.  His extensive business background lends him a public perception of gravitas on economic issues.  He has stayed away from an embrace of the occasionally unhinged tea party protests.  His attempts to burnish his credentials on foreign policy were less successful since his Palinesque use of jargon and tough words largely drew snickers.  See here and  here.

But for a long time the sword of Damocles hanging over Romney was his signature accomplishment as governor of Massachusetts – health care reform.  In the Republican primaries Romney defended his plan but faced a dilemma when the contours of Obamacare started to look very similar to Romneycare.  While even the latest Wall Street Journal editorial replete with Republican talking points (some discredited) refers to the two plans as “fraternal policy twins” Romney has been busy tying himself in knots in explaining how the plans are different and whining about the alleged abuse of power by the Democrats in not deferring to a minority that lost the last two national elections.

This is a big problem for Romney.  With the Republican base whipped up into a frenzy the next nominee will have to attack Obamacare.  A federalism argument could work, but can also be countered by the fact that the balanced budget obligations on most states make it extremely impractical for any of them to pass health care reform.  In any case federalism will not explain away Romney’s willingness to sign on to government interference at the state level, something that has the base in a lather.

Even with Romney penchant  for short term memory loss on his previous policy positions, it is hard to see how Romney will be the candidate to perform that task.  Democrats will gleefully paraphrase the attack used on the last nominee from Massachusetts that Romney was “for health care before he was against it” to cement Romney’s reputation as an unprincipled flip-flopper.  A base already predisposed to distrust Romney will have a hard time trusting him as the man to take down Obamacare, which practically will be very hard to pull off in any case.

So the man who should have been the Republican nominee and had the best understanding of economic policy will enter primary season severely hobbled.  Again things can change.  A continuing bleak economic outlook could cause Republicans to hold their nose and vote for Romney, like they did for McCain in the last election cycle.   Repealing health care reform could be a fringe issue by 2012 and Romney could position himself as the man best equipped to fix it.  But at present it is hard to see Romney securing the support of a distrustful base.  IMO the man the Obama campaign should worry about comes from next door Indiana – Mitch Daniels, though a lot can change in the next two years.

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