Will health reform's first political casualty be Mitt Romney?

How to fix health policy.
March 10 2010 5:03 PM

Is Mitt Going Down?

Health reform's first political casualty may be a Republican.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online.

Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.
Mitt Romney

Republicans are threatening that any Democrat who votes for the health care reform bill will pay the consequences in November. "Every election this fall will be a referendum on this bill," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said March 7 on ABC News'This Week. "Democrats think by passing the bill they'll be able to get it behind them and change the subject to something else like jobs," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told reporters March 8. "But this will do the opposite. This will make sure that health care is the No. 1 issue that the election is won or lost on in November."

Well, maybe. But there's a decent likelihood that the first to perish under this Republican fatwa won't be a Democrat running in 2010 but a Republican running in 2012. His name is Mitt Romney.

I won't attempt to conceal my schadenfreude when I say that Romney's tortured argument that the health reform now contemplated in Washington bears no resemblance to the health reform he achieved as governor in Massachusetts is beginning to look just as phony to conservatives as it does to liberals like me. Case in point: When Romney started fulminating March 8 on Fox News Sunday against "the idea that government can step in and take over the health care system, and tell insurers and providers and doctors and hospitals how to do a better job" (text, video) the host, Chris Wallace, called a timeout. "Governor," Wallace said, "I want to pick up on this, because we got a lot of e-mail from conservatives this week who said that you are the wrong man to be making that point, and they pointed specifically to your role in passing health care reform in Massachusetts."

Ouch.

"There's a big difference between what we did and what President Obama is doing," Romney replied. "What we did, I think, is the ultimate conservative plan. We said people have to take responsibility for getting insurance, if they can afford it, or paying their own way. No more free riders."

Bad answer! The "individual mandate" requiring everyone to have health insurance is something Obama's and Romney's plans have in common—and one, by the way, that Republicans have lately taken to calling unconstitutional. (They're wrong, but that's what they're saying, even though some of them used to say something else.) "But Governor," Wallace answered,

Let's look at the plan that you signed into law in Massachusetts in 2006. You have an individual mandate. You have an employer mandate. You have subsidies for some of the uninsured. You set minimum insurance coverage standards. Again, a lot of e-mails I got from conservatives say—make this point. They say it sure sounds an awful lot like Obamacare.

Mayday! Mayday!

"A big difference—a state plan versus a federal plan," Romney parried. He continued:

No new taxes, unlike his plan. No cut in Medicare, unlike his plan. And no controls over insurance premiums, price controls, cost controls like his plan. So very, very different in that regard. It's the difference between a racehorse and a donkey, if you will, so—they both have four legs, but one works pretty well and the other's not working and would not work at all.

It was a nice try, but Wallace didn't buy it.

I want to pursue this, if I may, Governor. The libertarian, and certainly the somewhat conservative, Cato Institute says that your plan in Massachusetts is a mirror—a mirror plan of  Obamacare. They say it's quite right you didn't raise taxes, but they say, in fact, you got millions of dollars from the federal government to finance your plan.

Actually, Romneycare did raise taxes in Massachusetts—as noted by Cato's Michael F. Cannon here and by Cato's Michael Tanner here. Cannon cited a Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimate that the Massachusetts health reform costs state taxpayers $88 million per year (and then argued this lowballed the true cost to state taxpayers by a factor of 19). But Wallace was right about the "millions of dollars from the federal government." State funding is matched by a roughly equivalent amount from Washington, as Romney conceded.

"No government insurance," Romney finally bleated. "No government option, if you will." "Well, there's no government option in the Obama plan anymore, either," Wallace pointed out. "No, that's right," answered Romney. "That's right. And so what we did was entirely different than what President Obama is proposing on the bases that I'm taking you through."

This didn't go down well at the Club For Growth, the conservative group whose specialty is killing off Republican incumbents suspected of moderate tendencies. As recently as 2007, the Club For Growth's president, Pat Toomey, pronounced himself "reasonably optimistic that, as president, Mitt Romney would generally advocate a pro-growth agenda." But according to Greg Sargent of the Plum Line, Andy Roth, the group's vice president for government affairs, now feels less sanguine. "The individual mandate is diametrically against what free-market conservatives believe in," he said. If Romney thinks it's a conservative policy, "then I think he is in the wrong party."

Ouch.

This skirmish comes four months after Glenn Beck of Fox News said, in a Webcast, that Romney "gave you government health care that is now bankrupting the state of Massachusetts." (The "bankrupting" part isn't true, but never mind.) Rush Limbaugh's a little ticked off at Romney, too (though not over health reform, for some reason; Limbaugh's peeved that Romney endorsed Sen. John McCain, whom Limbaugh has never much liked, in the Arizona Republican primary). And writing in the conservative Boston Herald ("Mitt Romney Dogged By Health Care"), Hillary Chabot pointed out March 9 that Romneycare (unlike Obamacare) allowed low-income Bay Staters to receive government-funded abortions. Wait till House Minority Leader John Boehner hears about that! Romney had little choice, he said through a spokesman, because he was abiding by a court decision. That argument didn't help Mike Dukakis in 1988. A Democrat might buy it, but Republicans can be vicious about such things.

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Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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