This week, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s announcement that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee coincided with the five-year anniversary of his signature legislative accomplishment, the Bay State’s health care law.
Much of this week’s political analysis has focused on whether Romney could survive the Republican primary given the striking similarities between his health care law and the one President Barack Obama signed last year. But there hasn’t been much consideration about how — if he survives the issue — a Romney nomination would affect the rest of the Republican Party.
Back in 2006, the signing of a universal health care law by a prominent Republican made the ground safer for such proposals from Democrats than at any time since the 1993 and 1994 Clinton health care debacle.
Romneycare gave Democrats a model. It forced individuals to purchase insurance, expanded Medicaid, and provided subsidies for citizens to purchase government-designed insurance policies from a government-run exchange.
Throughout the health care debate and in recent months, Obama and his surrogates have noted the similarities between his plan and Romney’s. On Tuesday’s anniversary, Democrats posted a mocking video thanking Romney for health care reform. The only thing that’s preventing this strategy from gaining more traction is that Romney is just one Republican among many.
But should Romney manage to overcome the health care issue and win the nomination through attrition as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did in 2008, he would suddenly become the de facto leader of the Republican Party.
Obama will be able to use Romney as a foil to effectively neutralize the health care issue. Just as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was an ineffective critic of the Iraq War given his prior vote to authorize the use of military force, Romney will struggle to explain why he was for the key elements of Obamacare before he was against them.
Over the years, Romney has tried a number of defenses. Most often, he’s argued that the plan was made worse by the liberals in Massachusetts and that it was an experiment that worked well locally but shouldn’t be used as a national model. But neither of these arguments will withstand scrutiny.
On April 12, 2006, a smiling Gov. Romney signed the law with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy at his side. If he was frustrated with the outcome because of the Democratic Legislature, he didn’t show it when he did a victory lap touting his accomplishment in newspapers and on television.
And though it’s true that a state-based approach isn’t as bad as a national one and doesn’t raise the same constitutional questions, it still represents an endorsement of the same underlying principles, including the idea that government should force individuals to purchase insurance.
If Romney wants to struggle to defend his plan in the primaries, that’s his problem. But were he the GOP nominee, he’d be traveling around the country and campaigning with Republican candidates at every level.
Each of these candidates will be asked whether they endorse their own party’s nominee. And assuming they do, they’ll have to explain why Obama’s health care plan shows he’s a European socialist while Romney deserves to become president even though he signed a similar law.
As they struggle to answer, Romney’s contortions on health care will become their contortions. Not only will it strengthen Obama and make the entire Republican Party look incoherent on health policy, it will also stop efforts to repeal Obamacare — making them seem opportunistic and purely political.
The enactment of the Massachusetts health care law is not only damaging to Romney’s political ambitions, but it could prove radioactive for the entire Republican Party.
Philip Klein is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner.