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Romney Hearts ... Clinton?

Here’s an argument I didn’t expect to hear from Mitt Romney: The problem with Barack Obama is that he’s not more like Bill Clinton.

In a speech to college students in Michgan on Tuesday, Romney invoked Clinton’s example and chastised Obama for, supposedly, going back on progress that Clinton and New Democrats had made during the 1990s. From the prepared text:

President Clinton said the era of big government was over. President Obama brought it back with a vengeance. Government at all levels now constitutes 38 percent of the economy, and if Obamacare is installed, it will reach almost 50 percent.
President Clinton made efforts to reform welfare as we knew it. President Obama is trying tirelessly to expand the welfare state to all Americans, with promises of more programs, more benefits, and more spending.

As a fan of big government, at least in some forms, I wish Romney were correct. (Why stop at universal health care? Why not universal pre-K too?) But the record suggests Romney is wrong. As Floyd Norris wrote in the New York Times last Friday, “For the first time in 40 years, the government sector of the American economy has shrunk during the first three years of a presidential administration.”

Over time, government spending will inevitably rise, maybe all the way to 50 percent of the economy. But that’s not really because of Obamacare. It’s because an aging population and rising medical costs are driving up the cost of all entitlement programs, particularly the ones that cover health care costs. The Affordable Care Act will add more people to rolls of these programs and it will raise some revenue to help cover the costs. But the law also calls for a comprehensive effort to reduce health care spending, so that government programs will spend less money over time, resulting in lower deficits. 

It’s just as misleading to suggest that Obama is a stereotypical liberal committed to expanding government for its own sake, regardless of efficiency. As my old friend Jonathan Chait keeps pointing out, the Obama Administration is downright obsessive about efficiency—subjecting grants for everything from Head Start to energy research to much greater scrutiny than before. These efforts are a sequel to the “reinventing government” campaign that Clinton and Vice President Al Gore launched in the 1990s.

It’s true that Romney has endorsed plans, like the Paul Ryan budget, that would theoretically reduce government spending more aggressively. But they would do so only by privatizing Medicare and dramatically reducing the financial protection that government health insurance programs now provide—shifting costs over to individuals, many of whom could no longer afford to get basic medical care, and potentially increasing what our society pays for health care overall.

If Romney wants to know what Clinton thinks about that, he should ask Newt Gingrich, who famously battled Clinton over proposals that sought to make the same sort of changes. Or perhaps he should just ask Clinton himself, who recently described the Romney/Ryan agenda as the Gingrich agenda “on steroids.”

Update: Ed Kilgore on the big lies in the Michigan speech and Greg Sargent on Romney’s sudden case of amnesia.

follow me on twitter @CitizenCohn