Paul Nitze: While Mitt Romney runs from his shadow
June 1, 2011
GOP presidential candidates have many miles to rack up on campaign buses before we find out who will stand in front of the bunting in Tampa next August. It’s been a bit of a bust already though, with a couple of the strongest candidates staying home. That leaves two guys from Utah, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, as the smartest and most capable likely entrants. And they both have big Obama problems.
Huntsman’s problem is simple – he worked for the president as his ambassador to China. He’s a moderate Republican, just the type to answer a Democratic president’s call. Romney’s problem is that he sparked a national health-care revolution when he signed a universal health-care law as governor of Massachusetts.
That law had the dreaded “individual mandate” at its beating heart, a feature that Gov. Romney extolled in 2006. By 2008 the mandate had become so toxic that then-candidate Obama shamelessly said he would pass universal health care without it. Until he reversed course and made it central to his bill.
Romney’s experience with the Massachusetts health-care law is dredged up by Ryan Lizza in this week’s issue of the New Yorker. Lizza is not known for covering Republicans in glory (he broke the George Allen “macaca” story in 2006), but I came away uplifted. If you’re a Dem who recoils at Romney’s slick-topped, pearly white, masterfully cynical brand of politics, you might just read it and think he’d do OK in the White House.
Don’t hold your breath or sell your house – I’m still planning to vote for the president in 2012. Still, you can’t help reading about Romney’s experience pushing the Massachusetts law and think that he did what we want our politicians to do. He hired some of the smartest health-care policy analysts in the country to put it together; he kept ideology almost totally out of the process; he squeezed money together to make it work; and he mustered the political courage to support the individual mandate when he was getting push-back from conservatives.
Even though he’s now wearing a sack cloth on his national repentance tour, Romney wasn’t cherry-picking ideas from the left. It’s common knowledge that every major feature of the Massachusetts plan was birthed by Republican think tanks in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Thus the recent clip of Next Gingrich on “Meet the Press” during the Clinton-era health-care battle, in which Gingrich has kind things to say about the individual mandate. It’s only by dint of their age that the other GOP hopefuls don’t have similar clips in the archives.
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Romney’s absurd April speech trying to open a gap between Obamacare and Masscare must have had the president’s campaign team grinning. So far, Romney is the clear front-runner in the race, and he’s the only candidate who seems like he could match the president’s billion-dollar war chest. Common wisdom among Democratic strategists is that Romney would have two guys to beat – the president and his younger self. That is a steep hill to climb. The president will be a tough match by himself.
From a different angle, the problem for Romney is that Republican primary voters will punish him for something that he should be treating like a victory. As time goes on, Obama will be able to talk up the cost controls included in the Affordable Care Act, features which will resonate with independent voters and balance some unease over the individual mandate.
By next fall, a date that fortuitously lines up with the general election calendar, hospitals will receive Medicare payments that are tied to the total Medicare spending on that patient from three days before the patient entered the hospital to 90 days after the patient leaves. Hospitals that discharge patients only to have them rack up huge aftercare charges will be penalized. Other hospitals that provide better care and also have integrated treatment plans will be rewarded.
This is the kind of cost control that the president made much of in his effort to paint the Affordable Care Act as pragmatic and bipartisan in its approach. That effort was a failure as of last year’s mid-terms, but don’t write it off yet. It looks like it might pay some late dividends; Republican fear-mongering on Obamacare is seeing diminishing returns.
Pragmatism and bipartisanship haven’t been the strategic weapons the president thought they would be when he took office. More often, he’s been accused of giving away the store. But his strategy has put Republicans in the position of disavowing their own best ideas on health care. That’s where Romney finds himself today.
Instead of running on his very real achievements in Massachusetts, and in rescuing the Salt Lake Olympics from disaster, Romney is forced to trot out lame “federalist” excuses for why he did what he did as governor. A hard-core pragmatist is trying to reinvent himself as a sword-bearer, with poor results.
You may blanch at Romney’s shamelessness, but shamelessness does not necessarily make for bad presidents. Romney is a brilliant, wildly ambitious, and fundamentally pragmatic politician. We could do a lot worse. But that’s not the version of Mitt Romney we’re going to see next year.