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The $10,000 Question

Everybody's saying that Mitt Romney made himself sound like a rich jerk by offering to bet Rick Perry $10,000 that Perry was describing incorrectly a portion of his (Romney's) book, No Apology, that was excised from the paperback edition. I'm not inclined to judge Romney on that score, having occasionally bet my children $1 million to make this or that point. I've lost a couple of times and had to admit that I didn't actually have $1 million; then again, neither did they. Romney actually does have $10,000--indeed, he has $1 million--which I suppose makes it a little different. Still, Romney was essentially saying, "I am completely confident I'm right about this."

The more interesting question is whether Romney should have been completely confident that he was right. Being president, after all, requires you not to be completely confident that you're right when in fact you are wrong. Writing on the PolitiFact Web site, Meghan Ashford-Grooms says Romney's confidence was justified. I beg to differ.

Perry described the excised portion thusly:

"[I]t said in there that your mandate in Massachusetts which should be the model for the country. And I know it came out of-- of the-- the reprint of the book. But, you know, I'm just sayin', you were for individual mandates, my friend."

At this point Romney said: "You know what? You've raised that before, Rick. And you're simply wrong." Then he offered to bet Perry $10,000. Then he said that in the book he wrote:

"I say as close as I can quote, I say, 'In my view, each state should be able to--to fashion their own program for the specific needs of their distinct citizens.' And then I go on to talk about the states being the laboratories of democracy. And we could learn from one another. I have not said, in that book, first edition or the latest edition, anything about our plan being a national mo-- model imposed on the nation."

These two interpretations are not inconsistent in any literal sense. Perry didn't say (at least not in this debate) that Romney had sought to impose the individual mandate on the rest of the nation. He merely said that Romney was for the individual mandate in Massachusetts (even Romney doesn't dispute that). What Perry said next can be interpreted to mean Romney thought others might choose to adopt similar plans ("should be the model for the country," that is, at the state level). That interpretation does not conflict with Romney's description of his position ("we could learn from one another" really means others could learn from me; if Romney doesn't think that, then why on earth is he running for president?).

Alternatively, Perry's comments might mean that he does think Romney wrote, in the excised portion, that the federal government should impose Romneycare (and therefore the individual mandate) on the entire country, as Obamacare more or less does.

Let's go to the outtake from No Apologies:

"My own preference would be to let each state fashion its own program to meet the distinct needs of its citizens. States could follow the Massachusetts model if they choose, or they could develop plans of their own. These plans, tested in the state 'laboratories of democracy' could be evaluated, compared, improved upon, and adopted by others. But the creation of a national plan is the direction in which Washington is currently moving. If a national approach is ultimately adopted, we should permit individuals to purchase insurance from companies in other states in order to expand choice and competition.
"What we accomplished surprised us: 440,000 people who previously had no health insurance became insured, many paying their own way. We made it possible for each newly insured person to have better care, and ultimately healthier and longer lives. From now on, no one in Massachusetts has to worry about losing his or her health insurance if there is a job change or a loss in income; everyone is insured and pays only what he or she can afford. It's portable, affordable health insurance — something people have been talking about for decades. We can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country, and it can be done without letting government take over health care." 

The passage does indeed begin the way Romney describes it--here's a model for health care reform, maybe other states will adopt it, maybe they won't, their call. But then Romney writes that "the creation of a national plan is the direction in which Washington is currently moving." He would prefer a state-level approach, sure, but if the federal government wanted to adopt Romneycare and cover him in glory for his marvelous policy innovation ... well, they could do a lot worse. If Romney thought otherwise he would have written that "the direction in which Washington is currently moving" was clearly unacceptable. But he didn't; all he wrote was that if health reform was nationalized then insurance ought to be purchased across state lines (a bad idea, incidentally, in the absence of rigorous national regulation of the health insurance industry).

Romney's conclusion that "We can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country" can refer to either outcome--adoption at the state level, which he'd prefer, or adoption at the federal level, which would be second best. In either case, Romney does not consider it would be "letting government take over health care" because the health insurance policies, though regulated and subsidized at the state or federal level, would be created within the private market.

In other words: Romney did write what he now says he wrote. But he also wrote what Perry says he wrote. Perry should've taken that bet.