Health Care Issue May Fade Fast for Romney

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Kevin Dietsch / UPI / LANDOV

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivers remarks on the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's health care reform bill, after the Supreme Court upheld a majority of the law, in Washington, D.C. on June 28, 2012

Mitt Romney has long run a campaign obsessively focused on Barack Obama’s economic record. Romney has been so monomaniacal that I recently wondered in this space whether he might actually be putting too much emphasis on the economy for his own good. The Supreme Court’s ruling on health care offers an interesting test of his campaign’s strategy. Although Romney insists that Obamacare is, in fact, an economic issue—“a job killer,” as he called it Thursday—it’s still a diversion from his core message about the unemployment rate and the failure of Obama’s stimulus plan to kick start the economy. Perhaps that’s why Romney’s advisers stop short of saying that health care will be a central issue in November. “In the end, this is a good thing for us,” says one person close to Romney’s campaign, who also concedes that the issue “will fade” over time.

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Immediately after the ruling, some Democrats pulled a page from Romney’s playbook and insisted that arguing about health care was a diversion from what Americans care about most. ““We shouldn’t waste time re-fighting old, old battles. We should focus on creating jobs, improving the economy of the people of this country,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, a canny political operator, likewise Tweeted that the court’s ruling “shows the time for fighting over healthcare validity is over. Congress [should] focus on #1 issue: jobs.”

Romney sees the same polls that Democrats do, which show that few voters call health care their top priority. Romney also understands that the more he talks about repealing Obamacare, the more he’ll be pressured to explain what he would replace it with—something he seems not to have figured out. (No one likes the pre-Obamacare status quo).

(SPECIAL: TIME’s Complete Coverage of the Affordable Care Act)

It’s true that the Roberts court has handed Romney some new rhetorical clubs to use against Obama. The majority’s ruling that the insurance requirement is constitutional—under Congress’s powers of taxation—allow Romney to attack the law on anti-tax grounds, and to accuse Obama of violating his promise not to raise taxes on any middle class Americans. But surely Romney would have preferred that the court deliver him a simpler message: “It’s unconstitutional.” But no matter. The next federal jobs report will be released one week from today, on July 6, and if it brings more disappointment, the political conversation will quickly return to the subject Romney likes best.

MORE: Republicans Turn Health Reform Loss into a Rallying Cry