Health Care Was Never Going to Save the GOP

Following this morning’s excellent jobs numbers, conservative Philip Klein tweeted:

With economics improving, good thing GOP will nominate a candidate who can run a credible campaign against unpopular Obamacare. Oh, wait..

Here’s what’s wrong with that…well, actually, beyond the inconvenient fact that many Republicans who have been in public office since before 2009 have supported major sections of ACA, including the individual mandate – it’s not just a Mitt Romney problem.

But what’s really wrong with Klein’s point is that he misunderstands the relationship between the economy, approval of Barack Obama, and the popularity of Obama’s initiatives. The real “Oh, wait…” here isn’t that Mitt Romney is unusually poorly positioned to take on Obama on health care. It’s that if the unemployment rate continues to drop, Obama’s approval ratings will rise, and if Obama’s approval ratings rise, “Obamacare” is going to be more popular.

Of course, Republicans pushed this even farther by personalizing the issue: one would have to guess that “Obamacare” is even more dependent on what one thinks about Barack Obama than “ACA” or a generic “health care plan” would be. But really, this isn’t something that Republicans have much control over. If it turns out that the economy is really getting healthy – and don’t forget, a few months of better jobs numbers is no guarantee at all of how things will look by mid-summer – then about the only thing the outparty can do is to find an Eisenhower, and unfortunately for the GOP those are in very short supply. That’s why if you want to know who will win in November, you can mostly ignore the primaries and caucuses – watch the economic numbers, the Fed policy, and the progress of the payroll tax cut and UI extender bill through Congress this month. But it’s not just that; those are also the indicators you should watch if you want to know how popular ACA will be in the fall. Overall, I think Jonathan Chait has it about right: economic pessimism is probably Mitt Romney’s best bet, and either it will pan out or it won’t.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.