Mitt Romney is an idiot or, even worse, is pretending to be one. His tantrum of a response on Thursday to the Supreme Court's health-care decision was pure playground: As president I will own the ball, and the game will be played by rules that leave me a winner.
That game has already been called in a decision written by the top-ranking conservative jurist, and shorn of the constitutional objection; Barack Obama's health-care plan now will be judged by its practical outcomes. Romney's promise that "I will act to repeal Obamacare" from "my first day as president of the United States" is a prescription of destructive gridlock for a program already well under way.
By immediately committing to reverse a health-care reform based on the very program he implemented as governor of Massachusetts, Romney has gone to war with himself. Obviously, neither he nor his advisers has yet grasped that the decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts has changed the terms of the debate.
The issue is no longer one of states' rights. That would have been the case if the court had relied on the Constitution's commerce clause, leaving Romney to argue that it was legal for his state to have required a mandate but is illegal for the feds to do so. However, the court decision, based as it is on the right of the government to raise taxes to pay for a public need, makes the states' rights claim irrelevant.
The issue faced by the court was the same on the federal level as it was on the state level; if the public, through its government, must ultimately bear the cost of caring for the uninsured -- as would be so in any society possessed of even a modicum of shared social responsibility -- then it can vote to levy taxes to finance that effort.
Clearly the Romney campaign staff was not prepared for what it must now view as Justice Roberts' betrayal. Based on the oral proceedings of the court, Romney's aides felt assured that Justice Anthony Kennedy would join his four conservative colleagues in voting to reverse the law.
"My guess is that they're not sleeping real well at the White House tonight," Romney chortled the day before the ruling. With egg on his face the morning after, a subdued Romney, standing behind a podium sign promising to "Repeal and Replace Obamacare," committed to sinking into a political swamp of winless contradictions.
The danger for Romney is in the word "replace," for there is no way he will persuade even a Republican-dominated Congress to get rid of the obviously popular requirements of the new law, now declared constitutional. While the mandatory aspect -- pay for insurance or pay a fine -- remains unpopular, not so the programs that expand medical coverage to the uninsured. Three-quarters of those polled by The Associated Press said they wanted Congress, instead of sticking with the status quo, to come up with a new plan if the court threw this one out.
Romney's devil is now in the details. What exactly in this massive overhaul, much of it widely popular although costly, would he shed? The court already has limited federal pressure on the states to increase assistance to the poor. Bereft of that handy demagogues' argument, Romney and his fellow critics are left with eviscerating programs that assist the struggling middle class through obviously fairer access to heath care than has been provided previously by the insurance industry.
If Romney now dares to oppose the popular items in the bill, such as requirements for the insurance companies to cover young adult children or people with pre-existing medical conditions, he is finished as a candidate before he begins. And if it is the universal coverage mandate that he would eliminate, he is left with the government stepping in to fund the good stuff, and that is what the Republican right derides as socialized medicine.
This is the petard that now hoists Romney.