A modified limited hang out

    To set the stage for today’s topic – Mitt Romney, and his latest bid to defend/explain/finesse his Massachusetts health care law – let us first trek backwards to 1973, where Richard Nixon and his top aides are trying to figure out how to best spin the Watergate scandal. Should they lie, come clean, or calibrate somewhere in between? Let’s go to the audiotape.

    Nixon: “You think, you think we want to, want to go this route now? And the – let it hang out, so to speak?”

    Haldeman: “It’s a limited hang out.”

    Dean: “It’s a limited hang out.”

    Ehrlichman: “It’s a modified limited hang out.”

    If John Ehrlichman wasn’t dead and gone in 2011, I would swear he was working for Mitt Romney. Because what we got yesterday from Romney, in his latest torturous bid to placate the Republican right and stoke his tenuous presidential prospects, was classic MLHO.

    Romney had no choice but to be “honest” (his word). He had to embrace his ’06 health reform law – which features a government mandate requiring Massachusetts citizens to buy insurance – because if he had renounced it yesterday and apologized for having been so foolish, he would have further burnished his well-earned reputation for inconstancy. No way he could afford to do that; his flip-flop account is already badly overdrawn. So instead he opted to present himself as a man of principle with unshakeable convictions.

    Accordingly, in his much-awaited speech at the University of Michigan, he declared himself “proud” of the Massachusetts law that conservative Republicans loathe. He said he had no desire to “just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake.” On the contrary: “I, in fact, did what I felt was the right thing for the people of my state.”

    But then came the modified limited caveats.

    Why Romney thinks this will work is anybody’s guess, but he went with it anyway: While sticking to his guns and heralding the law that he championed as governor, he insisted that his health reform is substantively different from President Obama’s health reform. Which is a fascinating argument, given the fact that they are fundamentally similar. And that might even be an understatement; as Michael Cannon, health policy director at the libertarian Cato Institute, told the press yesterday, “It doesn’t even seem fair to call them similiarities, it seems like their identicalities.”

    Without getting into the policy weeds, here’s the gist: Both laws are grounded in the belief that universal health care is a great idea. Both laws pursue this goal by requiring everybody to buy health insurance. Both laws provide government subsidies to those people who can’t afford to buy the insurance.

    Romney tried yesterday, as he has done previously, to finesse those similarities by insisting that it’s fine for an individual state to enact these policies, whereas it’s a “power grab” if Washington enacts those same policies nationwide. His argument is obviously aimed at primary-season conservatives who believe in state’s rights, but there are two problems with it:

    Huge swaths of the Republican primary electorate hate the idea that any government would require its citizens to buy health insurance – state mandate, federal mandate, what’s the difference? Secondly, it just so happens that Romney has previously extolled the Massachusetts mandate as a policy worthy of export to the rest of America.

    Those previous statements do wreak havoc with yesterday’s MLHO. Here’s Romney on Meet the Press in 2007: “I think it’s a good model for other states. Maybe not every state, but most.” He said that if every state required its people to buy health insurance, “I’d think it’s a terrific idea….Those (states) who follow the path that we pursued will find it’s the best path, and we’ll end up with a nation that’s taken a mandate approach.”

    In other words, Romney’s primary season rivals still have plenty of rhetorical ammo. They can tag Romney as a “big-government conservative,” which, in some right-wing quarters, is akin to “child molester.” All Romney’s foes need to say is essentially this: “He stands by the health reform law that he championed as governor, a state aw that impinges on individual liberty by requiring everyone to buy insurance, and he has stated that he hopes this law will be a model for America.” Or perhaps simply, “Obamacare owes a debt to Mitt Romney for making it all possible.”

    The health care albatross is a key reason why Romney, the purported Republican front runner, continues to draw just 20 percent of party voters. Nothing he said yesterday is likely to boost his share. Health care per se is not even the issue. As evidenced by his MLHO, the real issue is credibility.

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