Romney Doubles Down

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R) gave his “major address” on healthcare insurance yesterday in Michigan.  It got bad reviews from the right and was faux-empathetically panned by the left. That was to be expected.  

The point of the speech was to drain the issue of its political poison. If health care “reform” is the defining issue throughout next year’s Republican primaries, Mitt Romney has no chance of being the Republican presidential nominee. If economic and foreign policy issues are most salient, Mr. Romney has a shot. This speech was designed to draw fire — let everyone have at him — to begin the transition to more common ground.

In the speech, Mr. Romney stood by the healthcare program he signed into law in Massachusetts, saying that it was “right for the people of my state.”  He could hardly do otherwise.  It was the signature accomplishment of his (one-term) gubernatorial tenure. To have disowned it would have been to deny his public service.  

“Romneycare” is seen by many on the right as the precursor to President Obama’s national health care program, depending as it does on the “individual mandate.” Proponents of both the Obama and Romney plans say that neither plan can work unless everyone is required to pay in (which is true).  Thus the required “individual mandate;” everyone has to pay in.

Opponents say that no American should be required by his or her government to buy a product or service, including health insurance.  They view the “individual mandate” as an infringement of basic liberties. It is exactly that.  But that’s the trade.  Everybody has to pay in or the “system” doesn’t work.  It collapses without the “individual mandate.”

Mr. Romney reiterated this basic maths in his speech.  Conservatives are infuriated by this because for them it’s entirely beside the point.  The issue, they say, is “liberties,” not maths. They see the slippery slope.  They know where it leads. They might well be right about where it eventually ends up.

In the speech, Romney tried to cut the baby in half by saying that he would repeal Obamacare (nationalized Romneycare) and let the states make their own decisions.  Thus the formulation of “repeal and replace.” Romney went so far as to invoke the 10th Amendment, which is a tactic much in vogue with rightist Sunbelt governors, pandering to their furthest-most fringes with coded signals of secession.  Fine, I guess.  You do what you have to do.

In terms of policy, letting the states make their own decision sounds good on paper, but opens up all sorts of risks in practice; not least a race to the bottom that produces a system even worse and more bankrupt than the current one.  Romney argued that his plan for Massachusetts was the best plan for Massachusetts but that it might not be right for Indiana. That seems absurd on its face.  Indiana is identical to Massachusetts; it is filled with people who need healthcare.

Romney’s attempts to square this circle are emblematic of the larger problem of his presidential candidacy.  Voters of all stripes aren’t quite sure where he stands.  I’ve been covering Mitt Romney’s political campaigns since he first ran for the US Senate against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts in 1994. I have no idea what he really thinks about national security strategy, or the financialization of the American economy, or the downside of globalization or managing immigration or the restructuring of government services amidst this ocean of debt.

Maybe the health care speech was his first stab at making his view of things more clear.  One hopes so.  Mr. Romney is well-qualified by temperament and character and intellect to be the nation’s chief executive.  If the presidential selection process was out-sourced to the four best head-hunters in the world, he would be on the lists of all four. 

It may be that Republican primary voters simply will not have him.  That’s certainly possible.  But there’s freedom in that; the freedom to say what he thinks. This is what I seeThis is where I standThis is where I think we need to go.  Yesterday’s speech was defensive; he could only hold his ground. From now forward, he has to play offence. The only way he wins is if he finds his voice.