Watching one of the many Republican presidential debates, a CNN one in June 2011, I started at one exchange, and was surprised that it did not draw more comment afterward. CNN's John King asked Mitt Romney whether, in the aftermath of the recent Joplin, Mo. disaster and a budget crunch at FEMA, the agency should be shut down, leaving disaster relief to the states.

“Absolutely,” Romney said. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?”

King followed up: “Including disaster relief, though?”

“We cannot—we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” Romney replied. “It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.”

Well, with Sandy now lashing the Eastern Seaboard, that exchange is getting some belated attention. Did Romney really suggest shuttering FEMA and leaving disaster relief to the states, or even the private sector? David Frum argues Romney said nothing of the sort, that he was simply evading King's question. I don't buy it. Romney answered “absolutely” when asked the first time if he was for sending it back to the states, and when given a chance to back away from that, declined to take it.

Now, of course, his campaign has, as part of the Etch-a-Sketch, tiptoed away from that position: in a recent e-mail to National Journal, a campaign spokeswoman wrote: “Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions. As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”

But what are we to make of Romney’s debate answer, not so very long ago at all? Kevin Drum makes the good point that it came in the context of the gathering debate over the budget and debt ceiling: 

This was the background for King’s question. Republican orthodoxy that demanded spending cuts in return for raising the debt ceiling had infested everything, even emergency spending. Sure, Joplin might be suffering, but by God, America was out of money and there was nothing left for them. Romney, who was still in his severely conservative phase back then, went right along because he didn't dare cross Eric Cantor. Whether he really believed what he was saying or not, this is the real problem here. As president, he probably wouldn't dare cross Cantor either.

This is undoubtedly right. But I would wager that there was something else behind Romney’s answer: his embrace of glib federalism, specifically as a solution to his great Obamacare conundrum. Remember, just a few weeks prior to that debate, Romney had given a big speech in Ann Arbor, Michigan that was intended to resolve what at the time seemed like his greatest obstacle to the Republican nomination, his having signed the Massachusetts universal health care law that was the model for the Affordable Care Act. In that speech, Romney made clear that he would wrangle his way around this not by disowning the Massachusetts law, but by simply declaring that it should be up to states, not the federal government, to decide how to cover their uninsured: “Our plan was a state solution to a state problem. And [President Obama’s] is a power grab by the federal government to put in place a one size fits all plan across the nation.”

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As my colleague Jonathan Cohn and others noted at the time, there were all sorts of problems with this distinction, including the fact that Massachusetts would not have been able to carry out its universal program without considerable help from the federal government. But the biggest flaw with the “let the states address the problem” approach is, quite simply, that many states don’t really see their uninsured as a problem. The political leadership in much of the country, especially but not only in the South, has again and again opted against expanding health coverage, notably by refusing to raise income eligibility thresholds for Medicaid coverage (in Texas, Virginia and many other states, an adult earning as little as $10,000 per year is considered too well-off to qualify.) This, as Jonathan wrote in a major piece last month, is a big reason why we do social legislation such as Medicare and Social Security and the Affordable Care Act on a nationwide basis: to assure a basic level of security even for people in states where there would otherwise be very little effort made to fill the gap.

Romney of course knows this—it’s why he was, at various points before health care became a toxic issue, suggesting the law he signed as a model for a nationwide solution. And he surely knows why we have a national FEMA, and why leaving disaster relief to the states would mean a patchwork quilt that might be fine for wealthy, well-governed states such as Massachusetts but deeply inadequate in poor, disaster-prone states such as Louisiana or Mississippi (not to mention that all states are fundamentally ill-suited for disaster relief because they, unlike the feds, must balance their budgets every year and so cannot borrow big-time to pay for a disastrous patch.) But to make himself fit for the Republican Party in 2012, Romney figured he’d cast his Massachusetts moderation in the guise of federalism. And, let’s face it, it’s brought him very far.

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