Since it's too late in the election cycle for much else, can we engage in a historical what-if? Specifically, what if Mitt Romney had peaked in the spring of 2008 rather than 2012?
His own fortunes, Barack Obama's and the country's might have been considerably different than they proved to be. But whether Romney in 2008 would have won or lost the presidency, this year's election and its great national debate might barely resemble the present reality.
Harkening back to those halcyon days may help us put the horrors of this year's mid-term elections in better perspective. For one thing, regardless of whether Romney or Obama had been elected in 2008, we likely would have Obamacare or something very much like it today and it almost certainly would not be playing the critical role in races across the South and Midwest. Campaigns would be just as nasty and the quotients of hate and distortion just as high, but the parties would have found other reasons to say the sky is falling.
Democratic candidates from Sen. Mark Pryor to newcomers running for a state legislative seat from rural Arkansas counties would not face the quandary of explaining or defending their votes for the Affordable Care Act or explaining why they had nothing to do with it.
Remember the situation in the spring of 2008. Sen. Hillary Clinton was no longer a cinch for the Democratic nomination because Sen. Obama paid attention to the small primaries and caucuses that she ignored. The early Republican frontrunner, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, had turned into a phantom and the other favorite, Romney, was sandbagged in Iowa by Bible-thumping Mike Huckabee and in New Hampshire, next door to home, by Sen. John McCain. When Super Tuesday left him in second place but with no momentum, Romney pulled out so that McCain would have a clear shot and a chance to build for the big race in the fall. Huckabee stayed in to torment McCain a while longer. It was a noble gesture by Romney but he proved four years later that grinding on can pay off.
Had Romney played on and won the nomination in 2008, the fall campaign would have been quite different. He did not need to choose an exciting youthful running mate, as the handlers of the aging John McCain felt he had to do, so Romney would not have picked a pretty Alaska airhead. After Sarah Palin's frightening exhibitions of ignorance, millions of independent voters lost confidence in McCain's judgment and he never got it back.
The big ponderable is what would Obama and Romney, head to head, have said about the latter of the two big issues of the day, war and health care? They had virtually the same idea about how to insure everyone in America and give them ready access to medical care. If anything, Romney was more ardent about it.
Two years earlier, Romney had passed in the Massachusetts legislature a bill that became the framework for Obamacare, passed by Congress in 2010. He then announced he would not run for governor again and set out on his campaign for the presidency, carrying the blueprint for an achievement that had evaded 10 presidents in the 20th century.
In Massachusetts, he had set up an exchange where insurance companies offered policies for individuals and employers. For people who could afford to pay some but not all of the premiums, the state would subsidize them. People whose incomes were too low would receive Medicaid. That, of course, is the foundation of the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.
That also had been the plan designed by the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1990 and was the Republican alternative to the Clinton plan in 1993-94. By 2008, Hillary Clinton had adopted it and so, in some form, did all the other Democratic candidates for president except Dennis Kucinich, who favored Medicare for all.
Obama was something of an outlier. He did not favor a mandate. Affordable insurance would be offered but people would not be required to buy it or pay a penalty. Clinton, Joe Biden and John Edwards scolded him for it. The plan would not work without a mandate, they said, because only sick people would buy the insurance and this would drive the premiums sky-high.
Romney was even tougher about the mandate. He would not require employers to buy insurance but individuals would have to buy it or, like Obamacare later, pay a penalty.
"I like mandates," Romney said. "The mandates work. If somebody can afford insurance and decides not to buy it and then they get sick, they ought to pay their own way ..." He called it "an American principle."
Now, the mandate is the main Republican criticism of Obamacare, the only criticism that has anything to do with something that actually is in the law. The architect of the Romney plan helped sell the new president and Congress on the mandate's necessity.
So we may presume that Romney would have passed his plan if he had been elected in 2008, unless the majority Democrats drew up like Republicans to prevent a giant achievement by the other party.
Obama and Romney surely would have battled on who could be trusted to do the insurance markets and Medicaid right, but wouldn’t that debate have precluded the massive advertising campaign in 2009 and 2010 that characterized the insurance market, the mandates and Medicaid as an un-American undertaking?
And the horror dominating our election next week would be…what?