The fight for the Republican presidential nomination hasn’t officially started, but conservatives around the country are already pressuring former Mass. governor and likely presidential candidate Mitt Romney to apologize for signing the Commonwealth’s health care reform bill into law.
“Stopping Obamacare cold has become an article of faith on the right,” Politico reported earlier this week, “and Romney is facing the prospect that his health care plan could be his undoing as a presidential contender.”
But calls for Romney to disown his own health care plan haven’t sat well with many Massachusetts Republicans. As Romney's Republican opponents prepare to rip his — and their — health-care legacy apart, they are urging the former governor to defend the law.
That hasn't stopped the calls from mounting. In a blog post entitled, “Say Goodbye to Mitt Romney,” Republican strategist Bill Pascoe encouraged Romney to “say six simple words” about Massachusetts health care reform: “‘I was wrong. I am sorry.’” L. Brent Bozell, president of the Conservative Victory Committee, said he “would advise [Romney] to acknowledge he made a mistake.” Penny Nance, chief executive officer of Concerned Women for America, said that “the [health care] failure in Massachusetts is going to be a huge hurdle to get over to win the support of conservatives,” and that to “get over that hurdle, [Romney] needs to acknowledge that failure.” And Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council, has knocked Romney as well: “He has defended the law and continues to defend it. And there are things in the law that are indefensible,” he said.
According to interviews with several Bay State Republican lawmakers and spokespeople, these out-of-state critics are missing two key points.
First, Massachusetts Republicans argue that RomneyCare, as it was passed, was a solid bill that deserved Republican support. The problems came when Gov. Deval Patrick’s Democratic administration implemented it. The critics “don’t have a clear understanding of what RomneyCare was about,” said State Representative George N. Peterson Jr., a Republican from Grafton. Romney “needs to define the plan we supported out of the gate and compare that to what we have now. They really are worlds apart,” Peterson said.
“Most Republicans in Massachusetts understand what Romney was trying to accomplish, and even the people who don’t like the plan don’t hold him responsible for how it was implemented,” said Plymouth's Republican representative, Vinny deMacedo.
Second, Bay State Republicans point out that the out-of-state critics are unfairly conflating RomneyCare with ObamaCare. They note that while both plans share an “individual mandate” requiring people who can afford health care insurance to purchase a policy, the similarities end there. “[Critics] are trying to tie the plan Mitt supported with the one Obama passed. They’re really missing the mark on that one,” deMacedo said. “It’s like comparing apples to oranges.”
In explaining the differences, deMacedo reinforced a similar argument Romney has used to defend the law in the past. "The Obama option is one-size-fits-all," he said. "The Massachusetts law is specific to Massachusetts. What works here won't necessarily work in Alabama or Arkansas."
While the calls for Romney to apologize are coming from the right, even commentators on the left think the issue will doom his presidential ambitions. At The New Republic, Jonathan Chait has argued — in an ongoing series called the "Romney Deathwatch" — that once Republican primary voters hear about RomneyCare from other presidential contenders, Romney's candidacy will sink: "Romney appears politically viable right now," Chait wrote, "because most Republican voters have not been exposed to the RomneyCare-ObamaCare comparison — or if they have, it's been made by advocates of the latter, rather than by Republicans who they trust. When the attacks come, Romney just has no convincing reply."
Massachusetts Republican deMacedo disagreed. Because of his experience dealing with health care, Romney is “clearly the most qualified individual to run,” deMacedo argued. To make this case, Romney must clearly explain the plan he supported, and continue to contrast his own record with Obama's. "At least [Romney's] approach was bipartisan."
But there are precedents for a Romney flip-flop: When he ran for president in 2008, Romney came under fire for reversing his positions on abortion and gay rights. (As a candidate running for office in Massachusetts, he was pro-choice and favored rights for gays and lesbians*. As a national candidate, he wasn't and didn't.) Still, deMacedo is hopeful. “I don’t see him apologizing."
For what it’s worth, Ron Kaufman, a GOP National Committeeman from Massachusetts, had a different take on the situation: “Everyone is focused on one thing right now” — winning enough Congressional races for Republicans to take over the legislative branch. “All of these people are nuts. Anyone who is thinking about 2012 already should be hooked up to a jumper cable.”
But only, of course, if they have solid health care coverage.
*UPDATE: I originally suggested in this post that Mitt Romney favored same-sex marriage when he ran for statewide office in Massachusetts. While Romney did signal his broad support for gay rights — including, at one point, his support for domestic partnerships for same-sex couples — he never specifically said he favored same-sex marriage.