While Mitt Romney pinballs around America promoting his new book, "No Apology," he's encountering a public often eager to hear at least one apology and possibly an act of contrition.
Four years ago, the former Massachusetts governor signed into law a health-care plan for Bay State residents that looks strikingly similar to the health care package that is now federal law. In both cases, there are requirements for people to have health insurance -- and penalties are imposed on either individuals or businesses for failing to do so. In addition, both programs depend on new taxes to help pay their costs.
Other parallels exist, but Romney prefers to change the subject, saying, "Obamacare is a very different piece of legislation" that failed to receive the bipartisan support he achieved in Massachusetts.
Yet, as another Republican, Abraham Lincoln, once observed, "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history." Especially for an aspiring GOP presidential candidate, any perception of similarities to the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress quickly becomes grounds for criticism.
According to a recent Associated Press dispatch, Romney was confronted on his book tour by a woman unafraid to speak her mind. "We are up to here with Republicans not being conservative enough," she said, elevating a hand above her head. "And with all due respect, governor, your health care in Massachusetts is not the be-all and end-all, and there are significant problems with that, and I wouldn't embrace that today, either."
While Democrats battle among themselves in Congress, with the more progressive-minded in search of détente and a working relationship with more moderate lawmakers of the party, Washington-based Republicans have coagulated into conservative homogeneity that forbids any maneuvering outside a strictly circumscribed space.
Gone are the days of a GOP spectrum -- a Barry Goldwater, say, co-existing along with a Nelson Rockefeller. Now it's Republican red -- or else -- forcing Romney into rhetorical contortions to cope with full-throated confrontations.
Where is Republican thinking today? A Harris Poll released March 24 found majorities believe the president is a socialist (67 percent), wants to take away Americans' right to own guns (61 percent), is a Muslim (57 percent), has done many things that are unconstitutional (55 percent) and wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one-world government (51 percent).
Close to a majority (45 percent in each case) thinks Obama was not born in the United States and that he is the "domestic enemy that the Constitution speaks of." A total of 38 percent see him doing many of the things that Hitler did, and 24 percent believe "he may be the Anti-Christ."
When you consider these findings and combine them with the 10-point purity test (focusing on taxes, same-sex marriage, gun control, etc.) that the Republican National Committee debated a few months ago, you see why polarization, with its new-age Puritanism, is so rife in contemporary politics. Bipartisanship of the kind Romney displayed in Massachusetts is itself heretical.
The longer view of the current situation might well mean that Republicans will abandon their recent tradition of looking with favor on a presidential candidate who had failed previously but returns to secure the nomination. Since 1980, four GOP standard bearers (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain) lost earlier attempts before reaching the top of the ticket.
Armed with his new book and the experience from his 2008 primary campaign, Romney is no doubt trying to position himself in that lineage. Yet, given the opinions within the rank-and-file of the party he seeks to lead, that thinking appears increasingly wishful.
In fact, instead of "No Apology," another book could be more instructive in assessing Romney's future. Jerzy Kosinski's novel "Being There," published in 1971, includes an exchange among political leaders evaluating potential candidates for national office.
One of the characters dismisses several well-known possibilities with this statement: "The damn trouble was that they all had background, too much background! A man's past cripples him: his background turns into a swamp and invites scrutiny!"
Whether what's derisively called "Romneycare" is crippling and becomes a swamp will be decided in 2012, if not before.
Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair of American Studies and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.