Mitt Romney doesn't seem like the sort of person who'd respond to criticism by confronting his critic and saying, "You want to say that to my face, huh?" At last night's Republican primary debate in New Hampshire, he didn't need to: Moderator and CNN anchor John King did it for him.
Indeed, King practically begged Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty to go on the offensive against the former Massachusetts governor. Over the weekend, Pawlenty had coined the phrase ObamneyCare to suggest that Romney's health care overhaul and Obama's law are essentially one in the same. But despite King's repeated nudges, Pawlenty would not repeat the charge. Instead, he backed away from his earlier criticism, suggesting that he was only repeating what the White House had already said—that RomneyCare provided the model for ObamaCare—and only in response to a specific question.
Going into the debate, conventional wisdom was that health care was the area where Pawlenty had the most leverage to draw clear distinctions between his position and Romney's. So why didn't he follow up on his earlier attacks? Perhaps he's just a nice guy and, once he finally took the stage, decided he didn't want to go through with it. Perhaps he had already decided he didn't want to go there, and stumbled because of how much King pushed him. Perhaps he just froze and couldn't remember whatever phrasing he'd prepared in advance.
All of those answers could be true. But it might also be the case that Pawlenty realized that in attacking Romney, he'd invite a discussion about his own prior interest in health care legislation driven by mandates and regulations. Politico has the details:
Not so long ago, Pawlenty was praising Romney as an "unbelievably bright and nimble and gifted public policy leader in Massachusetts."
"We have been studying, very diligently, the Massachusetts model, about how that would apply to Minnesota, some of the unique differences, advantages and disadvantages to Minnesota," he said at a Minneapolis health reform forum in 2006, discussing fixes to the broken system.
At that conference, to the surprise of many, Pawlenty proposed that Minnesota "chart a path toward universal coverage," starting with thousands of uninsured children. Pointing out that mandated automobile coverage still leaves a double-digit portion of Minnesota's population uninsured, Pawlenty said "a mandate by itself is not much of a solution."
There was some qualifying language: "In Minnesota as to the access issue, I believe we should move towards universal coverage. Everybody should be in a health plan of some sort. How we get there becomes important, I think a mandate by itself is potentially helpful, but is not an answer by itself."
Then in 2007, he advocated setting up an insurance exchange — now a key piece of the federal reform that he now says interferes with the free market.
It's obviously not fair to say that Pawlenty's interest in universal coverage driven by mandate combined with some other sort of regulation or subsidies is somehow equivalent to what Romney did. Romney put years of legislative and political effort into passing a law that explicitly paved the way for ObamaCare. Pawlenty merely voiced an interest in following Romney's lead. But all the same, that interest was there.
And while he's no longer in favor of a mandate, he still likes some of the insurance regulations included in both RomneyCare and ObamaCare: As Dave Weigel reported yesterday, he agrees with the way both laws require insurers to sell coverage to those with pre-existing conditions at regulated rates. But talk to any health policy wonk and they'll tell you that those regulations don't work without a mandate. Insurance markets deteriorate fairly quickly. It's not enough to strike down the mandate. As I've said before, half a repeal is no repeal at all.
Like a number of Republicans in the decade or so following the failure of HillaryCare, Pawlenty seemed fine with the idea of a mandate in the context of a broader effort to regulate and subsidize the health insurance market. Even though he's turned on the mandate, that's necessarily going to make it somewhat more difficult to criticize Romney for passing a law that plenty of Republican policy wonks and politicians agreed was a pretty good idea at the time.