Election 2012

RomneyCare Returns

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No one should be too surprised by the fact that the Romney campaign appears to have decided to start touting RomneyCare, the statewide health care overhaul signed while Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts: Despite criticism of the plan and the way it paved the way for ObamaCare, which Romney has lambasted, Romney has always defended his own health overhaul, qualifying that defense only by saying that it might not be right for other states and that the Democratic administration that succeeded him in the governor's office botched the implementation. Otherwise, he's stuck to his guns, even when they've threatened to shoot him in the foot. 

What's odd about the decision to talk up RomneyCare now is that it's so unnecessary. Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul brought up Romney's state-based health plan in response to an ugly, error-filled ad by a pro-Obama group run by former Obama press staffer Bill Burton. The ad implicitly accuses Romney of having killed a woman because she lost her health insurance when Romney's former company, Bain Capital, closed the steel mill where she* her husband worked.

But Romney wasn't actually participating in the day-to-day activities of Bain when she was let go; she didn't die until five years after Bain closed the plant she was working at; and the woman's husband, who is the face of the ad, has admitted that his wife retained her primary health insurance from a different employer following the closure of the plant.

Yet instead of simply debunking the fact-challenged ad, Saul's response was to insist that "if people had been in Massachusetts, under Gov. Romney's health care plan, they would have had health care. There are a lot of people losing their jobs and losing their health care in President Obama's economy."

It's a strange, contradictory argument. What the Romney campaign seems to be saying is that people in the state of Massachusetts are better off because Romney did for them what Obama did for the entire country — and what Romney has promised to undo for everyone outside of his home state.  

Yes, there is a difference between passing an ObamaCare-style plan at the state level and at the federal level. What's constitutional at the state level isn't necessarily constitutional at the federal level. But Romney has described ObamaCare not only as "bad law" but also as "bad policy." And as a matter of policy, the difference between RomneyCare and ObamaCare is a difference of scale rather than a difference of kind.

Nor does it suggest any coherent future health policy. If Romney's preferred method of fixing the health system is to expand insurance through a policy vehicle like RomneyCare, then why insist so strongly on repealing ObamaCare, which is essentially RomneyCare at the federal level? Is his belief that every state should simply pass its own version of RomneyCare? (He has, after all, touted the Massachusetts plan as "a model for the nation.") If so, how is that substantially different, for the end user, from doing essentially the same thing through ObamaCare? Heck, thanks to the Supreme Court and the law's exchange subsidy provisions, it already looks like many states are going to have the ability to opt out of much of the law. So what policy does Saul's defense of RomneyCare imply? 

Maybe it's a mistake to look at this through a policy lens. But if this is a general election strategy — a shift to the center — I can't see that it's likely to be very effective. In touting RomneyCare, all the Romney campaign has succeeded in doing is further weakening Romney's criticism of Obama's unpopular health law while reinforcing the perception that Romney is a pandering flip-flopper. When Obama passed a health care overhaul that relied on a combo of Medicaid, private insurance subsidies, and an individual mandate, it was terrible, terrible. When Romney did the same thing for his own state, it was praiseworthy. This has been Romney's awkward position since the current presidential race began. But he's tried to stay quiet about it in recent month, and I'm not sure why he felt the need to remind people of it now.

*Correction: It was the woman's husband who worked at the plant that was closed.