WASHINGTON, D.C. — Eighteen hours before news that the Supreme Court had upheld the Affordable Care Act was splashed across cable news chyrons, Mitt Romney stood confidently in front of a crowd of roaring partisans at a Virginia electrical manufacturing warehouse, and winked at its coming demise.
“My guess is they’re not sleeping real well in the White House tonight!” he said tauntingly, eliciting hearty cheers from his audience. “That’s the way it ought to be!”
The room had the energy of a high school pep rally the night before a big game where the home team was expected to clobber its rivals. On stage, Romney was joined by Tea Party heroes Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s Attorney General, and Gov. Bob McDonnell, who rallied the crowd with dark warnings about legislation the governor called “the greatest power grab in the history of America.”
Off stage, aides grinned as they chatted coyly with reporters about plans for the next day. The campaign hadn’t yet advised an official event with Romney on Thursday, but they told press to be in the lobby of the Washington Hilton late in the morning, their suitcases in hand.
Said one smiling aide, “It’s going to be fun.”
The next morning, reporters and campaign aides milled around the hotel’s lounge, nibbling on bran muffins, checking their smartphones ever few seconds, and never wandering far from a flatscreen TV, where cable news pundits were predicting — gleefully on Fox, and mournfully on MSNBC — the Court-ordered death of President Obama’s signature legislative achievement.
While awaiting the news, BuzzFeed e-mailed senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom to ask whether the candidate would be expounding on his own health care proposals in the future. His response arrived about 30 minutes before the ruling came down: “Gov. Romney has described what he’d put in place to replace Obamacare. The onus is on President Obama to say what he will do in the event the health care law is gutted.”
He didn’t mention the possibility of the law’s survival.
Half an hour later, when Twitter feeds exploded with the news that the law would not, in fact, be gutted, the campaign’s senior staff in Boston went dark. Phone calls went unanswered, e-mails went unreturned.
Romney was in his Hilton suite with a smattering of staffers and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens when he heard the news, according to aides. Downstairs, reporters were frantically hitting the refresh buttons on their laptops, spontaneously announcing half-processed developments to each other as they discovered them.
“The mandate has been upheld.” “Roberts wrote the majority opinion.” “Looks like it was 5-4.” “CNN’s still saying it was struck down.”
Not long after the news broke, junior campaign aides shepherded reporters out of the hotel, into a bus, and on to a D.C. rooftop where Romney spoke at a podium carrying a sign that read, “REPEAL & REPLACE OBAMACARE.”
Aides later insisted that they didn’t have a separate sign ready in case the Court’s ruling made “repeal” unnecessary. Whatever the case, the four-minute remarks were delivered seamlessly, and they were enough to allow the candidate to retreat to radio silence for the rest of the afternoon.
At the end of the day, as senior staff began firing up their Blackberries again, it was clear the talking points had been circulated. It was a great day for Mitt Romney! Look at all the cash rolling in! Look at the renewed excitement on the Right!
And, crucially, they had definitely not been caught off guard by the Court’s decision.
“We didn’t know one way or the other how the Court would rule,” said Fehrnstrom.
Senior adviser Stuart Stevens added, “To be honest, I didn’t really speculate a lot which way this would go. I’m just not one of those guys who do the Final Four bracket thing or go deep into the possible draft picks on draft day. I find it hard enough keeping up with what is happening to speculate on what might happen.”
But if Romney shared his staff’s enthusiasm for the day’s news, he didn’t make it known to the press corps that boarded his plane from Washington to Newark, where he was scheduled to appear with Donald Trump at a Manhattan fundraiser. As reporters sat in the back of the plane, unwinding from the day’s adrenaline rush and dining on grilled chicken salads, Romney stayed out of sight, not even come back to reiterate his message or put on a happy face. He left the spinning to his advisers.
“There is nothing about the ruling that makes you like Obamacare more,” Stevens told BuzzFeed. “No one will be more for it because it is ruled a tax increase. It focuses the change side of the equation to one solution: Support Romney.”
“We’ve raised a ton of money today from new voters,” he continued. “Pretty clear path from here forward.”