The Republican establishment was never thrilled about Mitt Romney carrying the party banner, but bit its tongue in the name of removing Barack Obama from the White House.
That silence was shattered on Thursday after Mr. Romney’s latest flip-flop, this one involving his flubbed response to last week’s Supreme Court decision upholding Mr. Obama’s health-care law. Mr. Romney’s attempt to fix the damage only made it worse.
Mr. Romney’s handling of the court decision was the final straw for a few prominent GOP power players, including media magnate Rupert Murdoch. They called for a major course correction and suggested Mr. Romney start by firing his top campaign staff.
The friendly fire raised new questions about whether Mr. Romney’s political skills are any match for Mr. Obama’s. And it cast doubt on the central conceit of Mr. Romney’s campaign – namely that his strong business background should be enough to persuade voters that he is better equipped than the President to get the U.S. economy back on track.
The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal accused Mr. Romney of “slowly squandering an historic opportunity” to oust an unpopular President and laid most of the blame for the unfolding debacle on the Romney campaign’s “insular staff.”
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol went so far as to liken Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, to two failed Democratic presidential candidates from that state.
“Remember Michael Dukakis (1988) and John Kerry (2004)?” Mr. Kristol wrote on the conservative magazine’s website on Thursday. “So, speaking of losing candidates from Massachusetts: Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he’s running?”
The Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 verdict put Mr. Romney in a delicate position by defining the penalty imposed under Mr. Obama’s health-care law as a “tax.” The court used that term in upholding the law based on the federal government’s unlimited taxing power.
The health-care law Mr. Romney passed in Massachusetts also slapped a penalty on people who refuse to purchase insurance. Romney campaign aides refused to call the Obama penalty a tax, lest their boss be accused of raising taxes while he was governor.
That move put Mr. Romney at odds with Republicans in Congress, who seized on the court’s “tax” designation to launch a new line of attack. Top GOP figures have taken to calling the Obama health law “the biggest middle-class tax increase in U.S. history.”
Mr. Romney finally got in line on Wednesday, telling CBS News: “They [the court] concluded it was a tax. That’s what it is. And the American people know that President Obama has broken the pledge he made. He said he wouldn’t raise taxes on middle-income Americans.”
The Journal’s editorial board was not satisfied, however. It noted that Mr. Romney “offered no elaboration, and so the campaign looks confused in addition to being politically dumb.”
The editorial echoed a critical Twitter comment made by Mr. Murdoch in which the 81-year-old billionaire suggested Mr. Romney should drop “old friends from team and [hire] some real pros.”
The conservative newspaper also criticized Mr. Romney for playing into the Obama campaign’s characterization of him as an “out-of-touch rich man” by spending this week at his $8-million New Hampshire vacation home where he was photographed on a jet ski.
The photo brought to mind Mr. Kerry’s fateful decision to go windsurfing during the 2004 campaign. George W. Bush’s campaign used footage of the wealthy senator on his board in a TV ad that attacked Mr. Kerry for going “whichever way the wind blows.”
However, veteran political analyst Larry Sabato predicted that neither Mr. Romney’s health-care flip-flop nor his jet-ski jaunt would have much of an impact on voters.
“Fundamental factors drive presidential elections and, believe me, this isn’t one of them,” the University of Virginia political science professor insisted.
Mr. Romney got a vote of confidence from one Republican kingmaker: Grover Norquist, who heads the powerful Americans for Tax Reform lobby.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Norquist cited Mr. Romney’s support for the tough-love budget proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan and noted that Mr. Romney has vowed to cut income-tax rates and fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline.
“What more do they these guys want?” Mr. Norquist said. “Evidently, now that [Mr. Romney] has said he was for the Ryan plan, which is the most fundamental reform of entitlement programs and spending policies in the history of Western civilization, they’re now tired and bored with that and want to know what new things he’s going to say.”
Mr. Norquist also pointed out that Mr. Romney had not yet signed his group’s “no new taxes” pledge when he was governor of Massachusetts. As a result, he cannot be accused of violating the pledge by including a tax/penalty in his state’s health law.
“That was in the past,” Mr. Norquist insisted. “The question is what he will do in the future. And he’s made that clear.”