Romney's pre-emptive strike aims to heal his health care ills

May 17, 2011 

Mitt Romney is in a bit of a pickle, or so it seems at a glance.

He's running for president in part against Obamacare but has to acknowledge, as the president so often does, that Obamacare is modeled largely on the health care plan that Romney created while governor of Massachusetts.

Thus, tieless and professorial, Romney took the stage Thursday before a smallish audience at the University of Michigan and executed a pre-emptive strike against those who can't stop talking about the similarities between President Obama's and Romney's respective plans, including the insurance mandate that conservative Americans find so repugnant.

Oy. Or, depending on one's point of view, hallelujah!

The latter would be the chorus from the White House, as well as from Democrats and left-leaning pundits who quickly editorialized that Romney had made a great case for Obamacare. Meanwhile, the conservative Wall Street Journal pummeled poor Romney for not being a real conservative.

But let's subdue our reflexes for a moment. Without wading into the weeds of health care reform, there are also significant differences between Romneycare and Obamacare. Chief among those differences: One is a massive federal program without cost controls that requires a vast bureaucracy to operate; the other is a more modest plan that constitutes less than 1 percent of the state budget.

More to the point, one was decided by the people of a single state, by and for themselves. The other presumes to dictate what individual states must do.

Romney's central point was that what's good for one state may not suit another and that states should have the freedom to choose what works best for them rather than have to conform to a federal one-size-fits-all plan, the ultimate costs of which are not really knowable. People who tell you they know what it would cost are simply fibbing. Off the record, every honest person in Washington will tell you: Nobody knows.

Whether one likes or dislikes Obama's health care plan -- and there are certainly parts to like -- this has always been the crucial point. Keep it small; keep it simple; leave it to the states. Within that framework, what Romney did in Massachusetts is entirely defensible. It was an experiment; it was bold; it was imperfect.

Even a perfect plan, however, wouldn't necessarily be popular or work in, say, South Carolina. But Romney would argue that South Carolinians should have the choice to create their own health care solutions. Certainly fellow Republican Gov. Nikki Haley agrees with that position.

Another Republican presidential candidate who would agree is Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah, who also initiated health care reform in his state, though of a different order than Romney. The point again: States come up with programs that suit them best.

As politics never relents, another important point seems to get lost: Just because something works well on the state level doesn't necessarily mean it will work on the federal level. A family of three has different requirements than a family of 300. Or 3,000. Or 3 million. You get the picture.

My sense of "poor Romney" is that he may be too decent and earnest to be an effective politician. Which is not to impugn others, mind you, but heck-o-rama. Romney simply can't win for winning. Even without a tie, he's the tidiest, best-prepared boy in the class.

His search for practical solutions, alas, sometimes means that he fails the ideological-purity test, but this fact might also be viewed as refreshing. Apparently this is the way a majority of Republicans see it in the important primary state of New Hampshire.

In the latest Suffolk University/WHDH-TV poll, he had a 25-point lead among likely voters in the New Hampshire Republican primary. When asked whether Romney's involvement in passing health care in Massachusetts would hurt his electability, the overwhelming response was "no effect," according to pollster David Paleologos.

Another signal of Romney's strength will be how often Obama mentions Massachusetts health care between now and the primaries. I'd bet that we'll hear it quite a lot.

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