A health care brainteaser

    People are still abuzz about Mitt Romney’s latest brainteaser – I’m referring to his semi-quasi-endorsement (or non-endorsement) of certain key aspects of Obamacare – but nobody seems pleased. Probably because nobody can quite figure out what the heck he’s talking about or where he really stands.

    Yeah, I know. Big surprise.

    Two mornings ago on Meet the Press, the Republican nominee announced that, despite his longstanding support for “complete repeal,” despite his promise to banish all aspects of Obamacare from the face of the earth, he actually did not want to do any such thing:

    “Well, I’m not getting rid of all of health care reform. Of course, there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I’m going to put in place. One is to make sure that those with preexisting conditions can get coverage.”

    “Of course” he wants to keep some of Obamacare? Huh? What?

    Was he suddenly moderating his right-wing views, the views he had adopted in order to survive the Republican primaries? Had he suddenly decided to reach out to moderate voters (particularly women) who like the Obamacare provision that compels insurance companies to cover virtually all Americans with preexisting health problems?

    It sure sounded that way. Conservatives predictably went berserk. Witness some of the comments posted on the Christian Broadcasting Network website: “Romney is a leftist. He is a statist. He is unprincipled. He is beyond hope. He cannot be reformed, course-corrected or reasoned with.” And this one: “Romney thinks he’s going to be getting votes away from Obama. He isn’t. He won’t get one vote away from Obama. He’ll just lose conservative and evangelical voters and he’ll lose the election.” And this priceless gem: “Romney needs to stop peddling the ‘get-along’ pablum and start dishing out some ‘in your face red meat’ to the Marxist Socialists.”  

    The conservatives’ favorite media outlets immediately demanded that Romney explain himself. And sure enough, within a matter of hours, he buckled like a lawn chair in a tornado.

    Romney’s flaks moved speedily into What He Meant To Say Mode. They sought to reassure right-wingers that even though Romney had said on the air that he wants “to make sure that those with preexisting conditions can get coverage,” that was not what he was really saying. They said that what he was really saying (although he never said it) was that “the marketplace” would take care of those uninsured chronically ill Americans. According to the flaks, Romney still believes what he has always believed: that Americans with preexisting health conditions should be covered…as long as they have been continuously purchasing medical insurance all along.

    See what I mean? Brain teaser.

    Actually, this puzzle isn’t all that hard to solve. Romney made a rhetorical feint toward the middle of the electorate, leaving the impression that he was pulling back from his absolutist repeal-it-all position. But, as always with Romney, spoken words don’t mean a thing. Even the clarifying caveats, offered in the aftermath of his Sunday TV appearance, were content-free.

    For starters, “the marketplace” has never reached out to the 25 million uninsured Americans with preexisting health woes; that’s why Obamacare was enacted in the first place. Secondly, Romney is hardly being courageous when he says (via his flaks) that sick Americans with continuous health coverage deserve to be protected. The fact is, those Americans are already protected under federal law – and have been for the past 16 years.

    The upshot of this latest Romney episode? He has confused a lot of people, and ticked off his party base. This morning, the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said: “Mr. Romney’s preexisting political calculation seems to be that he can win the election without having to explain the economic moment or even his own policies. As this (health) flap shows, such vagueness carries its own political risks.”

    What I find most interesting, however, is why Romney feinted toward the middle in the first place. Obamacare in the abstract has never polled well, but Americans like many of the law’s specific features (coverage for anyone with preexisting health woes; coverage for young adults on their parent’s health plan; the ban on lifetime coverage caps, and much more). Moreover, when likely voters were asked which candidate is more trusted to handle health care, Obama led Romney by nine percentage points; among women, the margin was 15 points, and among moderates, the margin was 28 points. Obamacare is supposedly an albatross for the president, yet he’s swamping Romney on the health issue.  

    That’s why Romney behaved as he did on Meet the Press. During the primaries, he was compelled to serve up red meat to the right by agitating for full Obamacare repeal; but now he wants to win a general election, and that requires him to at least soften his rhetoric and make a show of compassion.

    But that’s all he’s doing. It’s just rhetoric, and it’s just for show. He can’t do more, because the tea party has him tied to a chair. The result is that he comes off as opaque and incoherent, a mix of traits that could prove fatal this fall.  

       ——

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.