Romney struggles to explain that RomneyCare is not ObamaCare

Jon Ward Contributor
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Michael Steele isn’t the only Republican who has had a rough time lately.

Mitt Romney tried during the past two weeks — following the passage into law of ObamaCare — to convince the country that the universal health-care plan he authored as governor of Massachusetts is different.

So far, his arguments have not stuck, many Republicans in Washington say.

“He’s got to figure out a better way to explain it. What he’s doing now is not working,” said one Republican political hand, who is not aligned with or against Romney but did not want to publicly criticize the man who still may be the GOP nominee for president in 2012.

Part of the problem is that Romney has failed to offer a consistent and concise message in defense of his plan.

He sent out a fundraising letter arguing that President Obama’s plan should be repealed because it is too costly and will result in insurance price controls. But health-care costs in Massachusetts have skyrocketed since RomneyCare passed in 2006, and just last week Gov. Deval Patrick imposed price controls on insurers.

Romney has argued that his decision to mandate that each person in Massachusetts obtain insurance or face a financial penalty – similar to Obama’s plan – is “the ultimate conservative plan” because it encourages personal responsibility. But most conservatives dismiss that out of hand.

And the former governor has also tried to take a states rights tack, arguing that it is wrong for the federal government to mandate insurance coverage and impose a one-size-fits-all system, because health-care decisions should be left up to the states.

“Like any experiment, this was meant for one thing: Massachusetts. It wasn’t meant for Vermont or Texas, and their systems would not work in Massachusetts,” said Ron Kaufman, a D.C. lobbyist and close adviser to Romney.

Kaufman offered yet another line of argument in defense of RomneyCare. He said it was a necessary step in the process of state experimentation needed to show the federal government what works and what doesn’t.

“We wouldn’t have any kind of welfare reform if governors didn’t experiment in their states,” Kaufman said. “It took five or six governors doing different things to come up with a solution at a national level.”

And Kaufman appealed to Romney’s core capability: his track record as a successful businessman and chief executive.

“As we get closer and closer to 2012, and people are more and more scared of what the future is going to look like for their grand kids, people are going to say, ‘You know what we want in our president? Someone who is really competent to get stuff done,’” Kaufman said.

Romney’s surrogates also said in interviews with The Daily Caller that Patrick has removed key cost containment provisions that were in the bill when Romney signed it into law. The Patrick administration says this is not true.

Cesar Conda, another Romney adviser, wrote last month that “Romney’s plan did not raise taxes on individuals or businesses, didn’t cut Medicare, didn’t include ‘public options’ or raise spending by a trillion dollars, and it didn’t impose insurance price controls.”

One experienced GOP operative said that RomneyCare might be an insurmountable political albatross around the former governor’s neck.

“Ideologically he’s got a bum knee. I don’t see how he carries that,” the operative said.

“His argument is that the Heritage Foundation endorsed it and the Democrats drove it off a cliff after he left, but his critics will argued he let the camel’s nose in the tent and created a massive social experiment.”

Those concerned about the cost of RomneyCare will also not be thrilled to learn that Romney’s own health and human services secretary has admitted that when the law was passed in 2006, controlling costs was not a priority.

“Simply put, the Massachusetts law was an experiment to expand health insurance coverage to almost every resident of the commonwealth, by redirecting existing health-care spending and without raising taxes. It was not an attempt to control costs,” Tim Murphy, a former Massachusetts HHS secretary under Romney, wrote in a Politico op-ed last month.

Romney’s attempts to distinguish his plan from Obama’s have also been undercut by praise from the left.

“It’s now becoming clear that he’s the man we have to thank for our new national health-care law,” wrote New York Times columnist Gail Collins.

Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who advocated for Obama’s plan but also advised Romney on his plan, called Romney the “intellectual father of national health reform.”

Gruber told the Boston Globe that RomneyCare and ObamaCare were “basically … the same thing.”

And the New Yorker’s John Cassidy, in a blog post arguing that the president’s claims of reducing the deficit with his health plan were “simply not credible,” called the health plan “Romney-ObamaCare.”

Things got so bad this past week that The Atlantic’s political reporter Marc Ambinder wrote a piece titled: “Why Romney’s Political Career isn’t Dead.”

In an odd tango, Democrats have been claiming Romney’s ideas as their own, to both claim bipartisan covering for their plan and to weigh down the potential GOP nominee.

The Democratic National Committee has put out at least 12 different press releases in the last two weeks about Romney’s authorship of the Massachusetts plan.

“Mitt Romney can try to explain away why he was for an individual mandate before he was against it, but no one’s buying it, including the right wing conservatives that Romney is courting,” said DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan.

Sevugan’s next sentence: “The fact is, the individual mandate is just one of the many Republican ideas that Democrats have included in health reform.”

In conversations with Romney advisers, one thing was clear. They expect, and hope, that health care will not be as prominent an issue two years from now at the height of the Republican primary race.

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