How Mitt Romney Blew It (Again)

by Benjamin Domenech on 4:35 pm March 7, 2010

Mitt Romney


Before a single town hall, debate, primary or caucus, Mitt Romney’s blown his chances for the presidency in 2012. What the 2008 also-ran had to say today on Fox News Sunday was the same thing I and others have witnessed him say a half dozen times over the past few months behind closed doors — a stubborn refusal to admit any similarity between President Obama’s national health care plan and his own disastrous solution in Massachusetts.

Here’s one quote:

There’s a big difference between what we did and what President Obama is doing. What we did, I think, is the ultimate conservative plan. We said people have to take responsibility for getting insurance, if they can afford it, or paying their own way. No more free-riders. And we solved this at the state level, not a federal plan, but a state plan.

James Pethokoukis, who blogs over at Reuters, had an interesting post the other day about Romney’s TARP problem — essentially arguing that Romney’s weak explanations for his continued support of TARP will function as a “scarlet T” for conservatives in the 2012 primaries. [Note: Both I and Francis have argued on Coffee & Markets that a vote for TARP is not only forgiveable, but justified. More than one conservative voted for TARP, and I think they can defend that vote today. Support for the auto bailouts and the stimulus package, however, are both completely unjustified.] But the blowback that will come for Romney’s support for TARP pales in comparison both to the stubborn silliness of his defense for the Massachusetts plan, and for his inability to recognize the opportunity this moment presented.

First, a simple statement of fact: the similarities between the current plan pending on Capitol Hill and what was proposed in Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Care approach are great indeed. The Boston Herald’s Michael Graham has even referred to it as “Obamacare: The Beta Version.” As Phil Klein has detailed on more than one occasion, there is very little daylight here:

For one thing, while the Romney camp would like to argue that the bill he signed did not raise taxes, in actuality, it did include a mandate that individuals purchase insurance or pay a penalty. In arguing against Obamacare, conservatives have described the mandate as a middle class tax hike. Republican candidates will spend all of 2010 describing it as such, and if anybody else were running against Obama in 2012, it would be used to argue that he violated his pledge to not raise the taxes of those making under $250,000. If Romney wants to spend the Republican presidential primary siding with Democrats and the Obama administration in arguing that the individual mandate isn’t a tax, I’m sure his opponents will be thrilled.

The CATO Institute put together a fairly definitive study outlining the poor outcomes of the Commonwealth Care plan, and Jeff Emanuel detailed the failings in cost and access on TNL last year in stark terms:

Far from reducing the cost of health insurance, Massachusetts’s individual mandate has driven costs up at twice the average national rate. This was entirely predictable; after all, what can possibly reduce downward pressure on a price more effectively than a legal requirement to purchase it, whatever the cost? According to the Connector, the least expensive price for an insurance policy for a 50 year old non-smoker in 2008 was $3,599 a year ($299.94 per month), with a $2,000 deductible. Next door in Connecticut, that price was just $1,468 a year ($122.36 per month, with a $2,500 deductible) – and Connecticut hadn’t even spent $1.3 billion on controlling and engineering their state’s health care marketplace!

This has had political ramifications, too — Soren Dayton and Mark Hemingway have both argued that one reason Massachusetts voters supported Scott Brown in his surprising upset were their negative experiences with Romney’s plan.

What should be most frustrating to Romney’s more intelligent supporters is that he missed a strategic opportunity to become the strongest voice against Obama’s plan, in a way that could’ve set him up as a defender of pro-market, pro-small business solutions. Romney could easily have given speeches along the lines of:

“Look, I did the best I could in Massachusetts, I tried a coverage plan along these models, and just look what happened. Higher taxes, higher costs, lower access, and only a marginal decrease in the uninsured. And that was the best plan we could get! This model didn’t work in my state, and it won’t work nationally. I’ve learned from my mistake, and President Obama should, too.”

Romney’s got a new book out, which I haven’t read yet but which Ron Brownstein suggests indicates he can’t decide between a reasonable campaign and an angry one (if you can’t do populist, do angry). From most reports, Romney has not yet decided how he’ll run in 2012 — though signs point to a more honest, pragmatic, pro-business approach than his attempt in 2008 to be all things to all right-wingers.

It’s early, of course — who knows who’ll even run — but even with a presumed advantage in money, name identification, and organization, when you consider Romney’s association with big business and Wall Street, his inability to connect with common people, and his refusal to reject his mistaken health care plan, it’s hard to see how he’ll navigate the primaries when he is sure to have stronger candidates to fend off than John McCain and Mike Huckabee. And if I recall, even with a massive lead in money, organization and endorsements, he couldn’t beat them, either.

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