In one of his two headline-making tussles with fellow presidential candidates at last night's GOP debate in Las Vegas, frontrunner Mitt Romney bristled at backbencher Rick Santorum's assertion that the former Massachusetts governor had no "credibility" when it comes to repealing the Republican-loathed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act because Romney's signature Bay State health care mandate "was the basis for Obamacare."
Romney responded in his usual fashion—by harrumphing, trying to run out the clock, changing the subject, reasserting his bonafides, and lying his face off:
You know, this I think is either our eighth or ninth debate. And each chance I've—I've had to talk about Obamacare, I've made it very clear, and also in my book. And at the time, by the way, I crafted the plan, in the last campaign, I was asked, is this something that you would have the whole nation do? And I said, no, this is something that was crafted for Massachusetts. It would be wrong to adopt this as a nation.
Then came some long and unwatchable crosstalk and whining in reference to the edits of the paperback version of Romney's aptly titled 2010 book No Apology, which replaced the phrase "We can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country, and it can be done without letting government take over health care," with "And it was done without government taking over health care." Finally, Romney got another full paragraph in:
And—look—look, we'll let everybody take a look at the fact-checks. I was interviewed by Dan Balz. I was in interviewed in this debate stage with you four years ago. I was asked about the Massachusetts plan, was it something I'd impose on the nation? And the answer is absolutely not.
Here's the problem with Romney's repeated assertion that he never suggested applying Romneycare nationwide: It just isn't true.
At a GOP debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 5, 2007, here's what Mitt Romney had to say about his preferred federal approach to health care policy:
Look, it's critical to insure more people in this country. It doesn't make sense to have 45 million people without insurance. It's not good for them because they don't get good preventative care and disease management, just as these folks have spoken about. But it's not good for the rest of the citizens either, because if people aren't insured, they go to the emergency room for their care when they get very sick. That's expensive. They don't have any insurance to cover it. […]
We have to have our citizens insured, and we're not going to do that by tax exemptions, because the people that don't have insurance aren't paying taxes. What you have to do is what we did in Massachusetts. Is it perfect? No. But we say, let's rely on personal responsibility, help people buy their own private insurance, get our citizens insured, not with a government takeover, not with new taxes needed, but instead with a free-market based system that gets all of our citizens in the system. No more free rides. It works.
There are two main problems with this yawning chasm between Mitt's flip and Romney's flop. The first is that a president who continues to insist, despite the mounds of contrary evidence, that Romneycare is working well, is a president who will be likely to continue or exacerbate bad health care policies at the federal level. The second problem, which worries me more, is that a president who attains office by brazenly flouting the truth is even more likely than your average politician to govern in a dishonest and even illegal way.
On the face of it, running against President Barack Obama should be a no-brainer in 2012. To win, one would think, all a Republican candidate would need to do is say convincingly that "Unlike the incumbent, I won't make the economy worse, I won't keep spending us to the brink of fiscal catastrophe, and I won't lie to you." Yet even with an underhanded softball toss like that, the best that we can say for Romney is that he's batting .333.
On spending, as Reason Associate Editor Peter Suderman keeps pointing out, Romney is running against cutting the three main engines of federal budget growth: Medicare, Social Security, and defense. As Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the only candidate on stage in Las Vegas to propose anything like a real spending reduction plan, said last night, "I want to hear somebody up here willing to cut something. Something real."
It is astonishing that after three full years of populist revolt against bipartisan big government, the best that the disloyal opposition can cough up is a telegenic B.S. artist who has the least credibility in the field when it comes to restraining, let alone cutting, the size of government. As tireless Tea Party obituarist David Frum nearly giggled last night, "I'm waiting for the Tea Party internal debate as to why it could not produce a credible presidential candidate."
There's a reason why the 2012 race has featured short-lived popularity bubbles for Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain, in addition to such non-candidates as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), and others. In a season where the political class' approval ratings are at all-time lows, a restive populace clearly wants something different. It's not just full frontal budget-cutting that people seek, much as I might prefer that, but a willingness to blurt out the blunt, politically unsafe truth.
There was only one candidate on stage who demonstrated that quality last night. As the anybody-but-Mitt sentiment seeks out a new vessel, a stark choice begins to present itself: Are Republicans ready to get serious about their rhetoric, even if it's three decades too late? Or are they going to pursue the same strategy as Democrats in 2004, backing a "credible"-looking prevaricator from Massachusetts?
Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason, and co-author (with Nick Gillespie) of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs).