I’m not normally in the business of offering political advice, but I don’t think one of the leading candidates in the 2012 presidential race – former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – has as complicated a political dilemma as some pundits think.
In fact, if I were Mitt, I know exactly what I’d say to not only get rid of the whole “Mitt did it first with universal health care” problem, but also win back skeptical conservatives who equate the Bay State’s program with their much-hated villain known as Obamacare.
I met Romney in 1994, when he launched his first campaign for public office by challenging the Bay State’s legendary and long-serving senator, Ted Kennedy. As a Republican in one of the most solidly Democratic states in the nation, Romney was supposed to be an easy also-ran. But as it turns out, 1994 was a solidly Republican year. Bill Clinton had won the presidency in 1992, and Democrats controlled Congress; the economy was struggling to bounce back, Clinton had signed an unpopular gas tax hike, and he was struggling with controversial, no-win social issues like gays in the military. By the fall of 1994 it was clear Democrats were going to take a shellacking.
Around the same time, Romney suddenly found himself tied in the polls with Kennedy. He was soaring.
I wasn’t surprised. Back then I was working as a news reporter for a daily, The Herald News, in Fall River, a city along the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border. I interviewed Romney several times. He was modest, soft-spoken, pleasant and unpretentious – nothing at all like the annoying Harvard liberals who always sounded like they were talking down to you when discussing public policy.
Kennedy survived that race, but Romney bounced back in 2002 and won the governor’s race. He served a lone term, then ran for president in 2008. He immediately came up against a big problem: the Republican primary electorate is conservative on social issues, while Romney ran both times in Massachusetts as a social liberal – pro-choice on abortion, pro-gay rights, for some gun control. He quickly had to backtrack, to proclaim himself a pro-lifer at heart, a strong advocate for traditional marriage, and a guy who enjoyed hunting. He faced plenty of charges of having hopelessly flip-flopped.
This year, Romney is struggling with one of the major decisions he made as the Bay State’s governor: signing into law a universal health care plan called Commonwealth Care that, among other things, requires Massachusetts residents to buy health insurance, in the same way that most states – Florida included – require residents to buy auto insurance. It also helps cover the costs for those who can’t afford to buy a private insurance plan. To conservative GOP primary voters, that sounds suspiciously like Obamacare.
All of this is supposed to be a potentially crippling problem for a candidate that a lot of analysts think is tailor-made for the general election: a moderate with a pro-business track record who has created job, someone who isn’t a fire-breathing dragon on social issues, a good speaker who can take the Obama administration to task for an unemployment rate that remains stubbornly high. But how does he handle that RomneyCare issue?
If he denounces the plan, pundits say, he’ll once again be accused of flip-flopping. But if he defends the law – saying, Hey, it was fine for Massachusetts, it’s just not the right plan for the entire nation – that sounds hopelessly feeble. Is there any way for Romney to get out of this box?
Mitt, here’s what you say:
“A lot of Americans want to know why I’ve criticized ObamaCare when I signed into law a universal health care plan in Massachusetts. That’s a good question – and let me make it clear there are some very important distinctions about the two programs. You need to understand what I wanted to accomplish in Massachusetts, as opposed to what President Obama is trying to do. Some folks ask if there are lessons to be learned from Massachusetts. My answer is yes.
“My interest in a universal health care plan was simple and straightforward: personal responsibility. Massachusetts and many other states have long required residents to buy auto insurance if they want to drive a car – to prevent situations where there’s a serious accident, but only one person has coverage.
The same concept, I felt, should be applied to health care costs. The Massachusetts residents who don’t bother insuring themselves will not get turned down if they’re rushed to an emergency room – they still get treated. But in most instances, the taxpayers — both in my state and nationally – end up paying the bill for them. This is the wrong approach.
“I wanted Bay State residents to understand that they can’t expect other people to finance their medical care – that’s their responsibility. For those who are simply too indigent to afford coverage, the state will assist them. But those who can afford to buy a private plan through the free market system, but just don’t want to – should no longer expect the state to pick up the tab if they get sick.
“That’s part of a genuine conservative principle – it’s not the state government, or your neighbors, who are responsible for you. You need to be in charge of your own well-being.
“So how has the plan turned out? Sadly, there have been some unintended consequences.
“The American College of Emergency Physicians recently reported that emergency room visits in my state are sharply on the rise. The reason is that more than half of primary-care doctors in Massachusetts have given up trying to work with the Medicaid program or Commonwealth Care, our state-subsidized insurance system. They complain that reimbursement is poor, at best. As a result, many physicians are no longer accepting new patients. Wait time for new appointments has gotten lengthier and lengthier.
“This is unacceptable.
“However well intended Commonwealth Care was, the results have created significant challenges that we can’t ignore. And while I’m no longer the governor of Massachusetts, I would urge state lawmakers to revisit the law to fix these problems. We can’t accept a situation where routine office visits have given way almost exclusively to emergency-room visits. We need a system where residents have a relationship with a trusted primary care physician, not with the nearest hospital.
“My plan was an attempt to encourage more Bay State residents to assume full responsibility for their health care. Obama’s plan, on the other hand, was an effort to do the exact opposite: to create a drastically expanded social safety net, regardless of the cost. There’s a significant difference here. Obama is not putting individuals in charge of their care, but the federal government. Obama wants the federal government to provide everything – with the taxpayers, not individuals, picking up the bill.
“Unfortunately, there are some painful lesssons from Commonwealth Care – unintended consequences that we can’t turn a blind eye to. And I have learned some tough lessons from this experience. The government is simply not a strong enough substitute for the free market system.
“I say this to all Americans – I have learned and know how to approach this problem in a way that won’t bankrupt our nation.
“President Obama hasn’t.
Frankly, I think that sounds better than When Obama did it, he was wrong, but when I did it, it’s not that bad. That’s politics as usual.
Mitt, feel free to use any of my ideas. I don’t think anything I’ve written here can hurt. It might even help a little.
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