Power Play

Tricky Pivot Ahead for Romney

Ananlysis of SCOTUS Health Care Decision and how it will play in presidential election


"Congress should now return to its full-time focus—the issue of jobs and the economy in America.

-- Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., commenting on the Supreme Court’s decision upholding President Obama’s 2010 health law, passed after more than a year of wrangling amid the worst recession since the 1930s.

The eight weeks between now and the Republican National Convention promises to be one of the trickiest times for soon-to-be GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

After three months running against an embattled president and amid a remarkable cacophony of news – including everything from the Syrian civil war to the teetering of the global economy to a same-sex marriage flap – Romney faces two months where the discussion will become increasingly about him.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled on the constitutionality of President Obama’s health law, the weeks between now and the end of August stretch out like a desert ahead of Romney.
Romney got an assist from the court, no doubt. Anyone watching White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew try to answer FOX News colleague Chris Wallace’s questioning about the $27 billion in new taxes under the law could see how hard this issue is for Democrats.

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The best evidence that Democrats know this, aside from former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell calling it “an albatross,” is the very fact that from the president on down the Democratic chorus has been singing the same song: Move on.

There is some irony for the Democrat to try to call for moving on to the economy since it was, in fact, their preoccupation with Obama’s law during one of the worst periods of economic upheaval in generations that led to a historic rout of the party in 2010.

And while the issue of this law and its effects will bubble and boil through the election and beyond, the discussion will move on for the time being.

The court’s decision had been a two-year-long pregnant pause. Washington and the nation waited for word on whether or not the new entitlement program would stand. The anticipation grew and grew right up until Thursday.

All of that anticipation and conjecture was very helpful for Romney, who is working very hard to keep his profile as low as is possible for the soon-to-be nominee of a major political party.
Some Republican strategists increasingly complain of Romney’s effort to run a stealth campaign in the general election similar to the one that he used to win his party’s nomination: lay low, strike fast and keep the conversation about the other guy.

Members of Team Romney, though, point not only to the success of that strategy in the primaries but also to Romney’s success so far. A tied race against an incumbent Democratic president at the start of July is not so shabby.

And the strategy also fits well with the president’s political proclivities. Obama and his team can almost never resist jumping into the news. Americans have been awash in the sights and sounds of Barack Obama for four years. He seems always to be talking about something – whether European “headwinds” or the social issues of the day. He or his wife are seemingly always being interviewed somewhere, whether on a CBS affiliate in Iowa or on Barbara Walters’ daytime talk show.

Obama has undertaken an audacious re-election strategy that started sooner than usually considered wise and certainly burns through money like nothing ever seen before. He is attempting to overawe the electorate with his presence and his campaign. Of course that also leads him to straitened circumstances, like hustling “BFD” T-shirts on the Internet, raffling off luncheons, ceaseless fundraising events and, as we find out, a conference call with top donors to plead for more and more cash.

Romney loves that. As Obama gallops into every news story and is seemingly always on camera, Romney figures that the president is not just wearing voters out, but also allowing Romney to continue to stay out of the spotlight.

Romney’s goal is to appear a safe, plausible alternative to a weakened incumbent president of a nation thirsty for change. Romney’s ideal public image would be that of a humble, hardworking and successful leader. And the Obamian desire to stay in the story suits Romney just fine.
At some point, though, the light will come down on Romney. And it looks like that moment is now.

The health decision has been rendered. Congress is finished until the lame duck session of doom that awaits members after the election. School is out. Vacations have begun. The annual summer slowdown, delayed by the health law decision, a scandal at the Department of Justice and other big stories, would appear to be upon us at last.

Given this environment and the fact that it is occurring to an increasing number of people that he could actually win the election, Romney’s ninja act is going to be harder to sustain.
The calls from the red team for Romney to start articulating a clearer vision are growing and Democrats are trying to cast him as secretive and sneaky. If those concepts take hold, Romney will lose his brand as a reassuring alternative. It’s risky to step into the glare, but at some point it becomes unavoidable.

On health care, particularly, Romney will eventually need to say what the “replace” part of “repeal and replace” will be. He has some time to build a consensus in his party and roll out a plan, but that time is growing shorter.

Team Romney knows that the moment for a larger rollout will come and that their man has had an extraordinarily good run during these very difficult months for the president. And Romney is going to try to stay in stealth mode for a bit longer, especially as the president continues to be weighed down by a shambling economy.

But making that shift in the right way and at the right time will be the toughest test yet for Romney and his team.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.