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joan vennochi

When Mitt Romney’s campaign struggles, don’t blame the ‘Boston boys’

WHEN IT comes to framing a strong rebuttal to the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, Mitt Romney’s biggest problem isn’t Eric Fehrnstrom or anyone else in his Boston brain trust.

His problem is Romneycare. Under the health care reform law that Romney championed as governor, Bay Staters must have health insurance. If they don’t have it, they must pay what Romney mostly characterized, back then, as a penalty. Similarly, under Obamacare, Americans who don’t have health insurance also have to pay what President Obama also characterizes as a penalty.

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After the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the mandate to buy health care insurance by defining it as a tax, what’s a president and his Republican rival to do? The White House continued to insist it was a penalty. Through Fehrnstrom, his trusted longtime adviser, Romney did too.

However, this rare embrace of common ground between incumbent president and Republican rival did not last long.

Fehrnstrom’s answer enraged conservatives who ache to run against Obama as a tax-crazed Democrat. To quiet the uproar, Romney gave a July 4 interview in which he walked away from Fehrnstrom’s words, declared the mandate under Obamacare to be a tax, and created confusion about where that leaves the mandate Romney championed in Massachusetts. If Obama’s mandate is a tax, what about Romney’s mandate?

The “flip-flop” headlines that followed also launched a firestorm of attacks on Fehrnstrom and the “Boston boys,” as The Wall Street Journal put it, who are now being blamed for hijacking the campaign and squandering Romney’s chances for beating Obama.

Tension between Washington and local operatives who have been closest to a candidate from the beginning is a natural part of presidential campaign narratives. That’s partly because it’s easier to blame the consultants than the candidate; it’s also easier to believe that brilliant political strategy can overcome a politician’s personal flaws.

But blaming the locals is especially foolish in Romney’s case. Washington people like consultant Stuart Stevens have been part of his 2012 campaign from the start. “This is a big team that’s been around the track a few times,” said one Massachusetts-based Republican strategist who asked not to be identified. “This is not Eric Fehrnstrom and Beth Myers [another longtime Boston adviser] sitting around Mitt Romney and saying, ‘How are we going to handle this?’ It’s not even accurate anymore to say ‘Boston people’ are calling the shots.”

The bigger problem, Republican strategists say, is that tactical decisions cannot change what Romney did as governor.

“The situation they’re dealing with now, Mitt Romney created for himself by moving forward with a somewhat left-wing health care reform plan,” said Rob Gray, a Republican strategist based in Boston, who advised Romney in his 2002 race for governor. “A lot of people want to blame the marketers when sometimes the product is to blame.”

Todd Domke, another Republican strategist based in Massachusetts, said he was “surprised and shocked” when he first heard Fehrnstrom agree with the Obama view of penalty versus tax. But he also said he understands Romney’s dilemma — and Fehrnstrom’s.

As Domke sees it, Fehrnstrom was trying to protect Romney from an “Etch A Sketch” moment — the very kind Fehrnstrom described on national TV in the spring, when he was asked how Romney would adjust to general-election politics after being pushed to the right during primary season.

“It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch,” Fehrnstrom told CNN. “You kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

Health care reform is one place where conservatives would be happy to see such a maneuver. As The Wall Street Journal editorialized, “Mr. Romney favored the individual mandate as part of his reform in Massachusetts, and as we’ve said from the beginning of his candidacy his failure to admit that mistake makes him less able to carry the anti-Obamacare case to voters.”

But for once, Romney, via Fehrnstrom, wasn’t shaking it up and restarting all over again. After the Supreme Court ruling, he articulated the same position regarding the mandate that he generally articulated as governor. It’s more of a penalty than a tax.

If you know Romney the way his Boston circle does, showcasing his rare moments of consistency is good strategy. Or so Fehrnstrom must have thought, until Romney Etch A Sketched him.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.
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