When he delivered his health care speech today, former Governor Mitt Romney was defending himself in a kangaroo court. Romney's alleged offense — the Massachusetts health reform law — wasn't an offense at all, and the only crime was that the former governor felt the need to cater to the most misleading and overblown criticisms of federal health care reform.
Romney deserves some credit for declining to distance himself from his Massachusetts plan. But his insistence that it’s only one approach, and that other states can safely make radically different choices (note the obligatory "laboratories of democracy" quote), is disappointing. His support for the principle of federalism may be sincere, but his willingness to elevate it above his avowed concern for those without health insurance feels like a self-serving compromise.
Romney has to know that leaving health care to the states would consign vast swaths of the nation's population to inadequate coverage or care. It would get the federal government off the hook, and presumably allow wealthier states like Massachusetts to pursue more progressive paths; but even those plans would be undercut by Romney's declaration that people — read "employers" — should be allowed to buy cheaper out-of-state plans. If enforced by the federal government, such a "freedom" would destroy states' abilities to set minimum standards of coverage. It's a curious position, to say the least, for a deeply committed federalist.
Politically, Romney was in an almost impossible position. The presumed GOP frontrunner felt called upon to defend himself against charges of conservative apostasy. It didn’t help that the University of Michigan classroom where he delivered the speech resembled a court, and the lighting gave him two shadows.
When discussing his Massachusetts plan, and later outlining his ideas on how to bring market forces to bear on healthcare costs, Romney offered realistic assessments and some useful, pragmatic solutions: more group purchasing of insurance, the use of tax-free savings accounts to cover premiums, "alternative dispute resolution" rather than malpractice courts — all are smart proposals that could do some measurable good.
At those moments, one could see the gifted businessman at work. If Romney were free to use his incisive mind to craft pragmatic solutions to national problems, the country would benefit. He's a talented public servant.
But the tragedy of Romney, which is really the tragedy of the Republican Party, is that there’s no place for such a person in today’s conservatism. So another Romney had to show up when discussing the health bill signed by President Obama. Suddenly, all the pragmatism was gone, replaced by sweeping bombast — "massive bureaucracy," "kills jobs," "economic nightmare," etc.
It reduces the credibility of a man like Romney — the shrewd problem solver — to mouth such platitudes. As if pursued by those two shadows, Romney can’t reject his past and can’t repudiate the gross excesses of today’s conservatism. So he has to subject himself to spectacles like today's show trial. Guilty, as charged.