It says a lot about the Republican party’s entanglement with the conservative movement that Mitt Romney’s single greatest policy achievement — Romneycare — was supposed to be fully off limits to his campaign. Anything that vindicates Obamacare or reinforces its conservative origins has to be buried.
But the marching orders were so loud and so clear, it was almost taken for granted that Romney wouldn’t go there. That assumption fell apart last night, and now conservatives are writhing in conniptions, wondering if this might be the moment when Boston flushes the campaign down the toilet.
I doubt that. But the breach exposes more than just an uneasy relationship between Romney and the right.
In the context of the campaign, it tells me a few things. Mainly, the original script isn’t working. The Obama campaign has darkened the other bright spots on Romney’s resume pretty effectively. And let’s face it, to the extent that Romney’s an economic fix-it man, he still needs to answer more substantive questions about what happens to people who fall through the holes in the country’s safety net. That’s really where this development originated. And it’s a thorny problem for Romney, who’s allergic to discussing policy with any specificity.
The background here is a new Priorities USA ad, which tells the story of a man, Joe Soptic, who lost his job — and thus his health insurance — after Bain bought out his plant. Years later his wife died what may have been a preventable death of cancer.
His particular story doesn’t perfectly illustrate the problems with the country’s safety net. But far from suggesting Romney killed anybody (as his outraged supporters claim) it neatly exposes an enduring source of middle class uncertainty. If you get very sick almost anywhere in America, and then your employer goes out of business, or lays you off, you’re already running out of options. Romneycare fixed this problem in Massachusetts. Obamacare is designed to fix it for the rest of the country.
Enter the Romney campaign, which notes quite correctly that Romney’s mandated, subsidized health care system might have saved Soptic’s wife if she’d lived in Massachusetts. But if that’s such a good thing, then unless President Romney’s going to recommend that all sick and laid off people move to New England, his pledge to repeal Obamacare just falls apart.
Here’s his first attempt to thread the needle: “[A]t the top of my list of programs we don’t need is one that costs $100 billion a year I’m going to get rid of and that’s Obamacare. And by the way, that doesn’t mean that health care is perfect. We’ve got to do reforms in health care and I have some experience doing that as you know. And I know how to make a better setting than the one we have in health care.”
So he’s experienced at fixing health care systems in a particular way, but has sworn off ever doing it again. He thinks it’s a real tragedy people in other states don’t have access to systems like Romneycare — and never will once, he signs an Obamacare repeal bill! If Romney had stayed in London a little longer, he’d have won a gold medal in bringing one’s own contradictions to light.
And let’s not forget, Obama and his supporters are inching toward a climactic argument that the combination of Romney’s economic vision and social policy are a recipe for more and more stories like Soptic’s. I think that’s basically correct. But if there’s a counterargument, Romney’s not making it by saying that he bridged the gap in Massachusetts with
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.