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Romney's Mandate Argument Gets Even Shakier

How good is Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski? How lame are the opposition researchers for Mitt Romney's Republican rivals? We now know that the answer to both questions is "very."

Kaczynski has turned up a televised interview and an an op-ed, both from 2009, in which Romney clearly suggests that the federal government ought to adopt an individual mandate for health care. Yes, Romney's support for such a mandate in Masscahusetts is old news: It was a key feature of the health care reform bill he signed there. But, during the presidential campaign, Romney has defended that position on federalism grounds: The solution worked for Massachusetts, but Obama and the Democrats were wrong to take it national.

The claim was never that convincing: Among other things, Romney, in his 2010 book, implied strongly he thought the Massachusetts reforms should be a model for a national plan. That passage hadn't referred to the mandate explicitly, giving Romney some plausible deniability, but how can Romney explain away this passage from a July op-ed for USA Today

There's a better way. And the lessons we learned in Massachusetts could help Washington find it. ... First, we established incentives for those who were uninsured to buy insurance. Using tax penalties, as we did, or tax credits, as others have proposed, encourages "free riders" to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others.

The phrase in bold describes, exactly, the mandate in the Affordable Care Act: It's a tax penalty for people who could afford insurance but choose not to buy it. And that's not coincidental. A key player in both Romney's and Obama's reform efforts was MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who has said repeatedly the coverage schemes are identical and Romney "can try to draw distinctions and stuff, but he's just lying."

If that doesn't convince you, then listen closely to the clip Kaczynski found from "Meet the Press." (See above.) Not only does Romney cite the Massachusetts plan as a model. He also speaks favorably of the Wyden-Bennett health care bill, the elegant but ultimately unpopular bipartisan bill. That proposal had, you guessed it, a mandate.

As my friend Jonathan Chait observes, these clips are a revealing (if not surprising) window into how Romney's mind works. At the time he made these statements, the big controversy in the health care reform debate was over whether to establish a government-run insurance plan as part of the coverage scheme. Liberals were in favor, conservatives were against, so Romney decided to plant his flag there: He'd speak out strongly against the public plan, while touting his Massachusetts model as proof of his leadership skills. 

It made sense at the time: Plenty of other Republicans were in favor of a mandate, as they had been for some time. In the clip, you'll notice that the guest to Romney's left, Senator Lindsey Graham, nods along as Romney touts Wyden-Bennett. Graham was among those Republicans who supported the plan.

But then the political landscape shifted dramatically: Conservatives started opposing health care reform in principle, focusing on the mandate as the object of their ire. To keep with the times, Romney settled on his federalism argument.

Again, I'm not sure how many people ever believed Romney's explanation. But surely even fewer will now, thanks to Kaczynski. The only questions are why somebody on the right didn't find these statements earlier and whether, this far into the Republican primaries, it can undermine Romney's quest for the nomination.  

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