Happy Birthday, Romneycare!

[ Posted Tuesday, April 12th, 2011 – 16:59 UTC ]

Exactly 150 years ago today, the Civil War began, when rebel forces began shelling Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The bombardment began at 4:30 in the morning, and continued for 34 straight hours. The fort must have been pretty well-built, though, since no Union soldiers died as a result of the onslaught. But plenty would die in the rest of the war, which remains America's bloodiest conflict. The war killed over 600,000 soldiers on both sides, as well as uncounted civilians.

There will be plenty of commemoration of this momentous event elsewhere today, though, so I merely mention it in passing. Because today is also another anniversary in American history, albeit one not nearly as momentous. Five years ago today, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney signed a bill into law which revamped the state's healthcare system. Nowadays, it is referred to (for better or worse) as "Romneycare."

As I said, I am in no way trying to equate these two events, and am going to avoid even trying to draw any metaphors between the two. Reforming healthcare is simply not in the same universe as a war between different regions of this country, in so many ways. The only thing the two share, in other words, is today's date. Just want to be clear about that, up front.

One person who (assumably) won't be celebrating the fifth anniversary of Romneycare is Mitt Romney himself. This is because the entire issue has become the biggest albatross around his neck, politically, as he tosses his hat in the 2012 presidential ring. So don't look for him to be cutting a "Romneycare fifth birthday cake" today. In fact, as far as Romney is concerned, it would be just fine if everyone conveniently forgot about the issue altogether.

This isn't due to how the program is working. Like any sweeping reform, it has had a few problems along the way, but it has been a stunning success at the primary goal set out for the program -- increasing coverage. Over 97 percent of Massachusetts citizens now have health insurance. If state polls can be believed, it is a popular program, especially among those who were previously uninsured. So why isn't Mitt Romney crowing about his signature achievement as governor?

Well, because of what he calls "Obamacare" (what is it with the trend of naming these things after people, anyway?). Obamacare is, to a large extent, based upon the Romneycare model. The big problem with this for Republicans is that they have spent the past few years absolutely demonizing Obamacare. Which is why Romney would really like it if everyone came down with collective amnesia when it comes to Romneycare.

Both of these "-care" plans share one significant feature -- the "individual mandate." If you don't buy health insurance, you are essentially fined by the government until you do. This feature was originally a Republican idea, which was brought up as a counterproposal to Bill Clinton's ideas on healthcare reform back in the 1990s. Back then, the Republican watchwords were "personal responsibility," as in everyone's responsibility to not stick the taxpayers with the cost of your medical care in the emergency room. Personal responsibility demanded that you plan for the future and buy your own insurance, so the state wouldn't get stuck with the bills.

The individual mandate hasn't been solely a Republican idea, though. It passed in a very Democratic state legislature in Massachusetts, after all, and was signed by what was then a very centrist Republican governor (this was before he began running in earnest for president). However, when Democrats got behind this Republican plan in Congress a few years ago, the Republicans all decided it wasn't such a good idea after all. Their watchwords had changed to "freedom from government" by this point. The individual mandate remains the largest sticking point for Republicans about what Obama and the Democratic Congress managed to pass last year. Republicans are now seriously against the idea that they not only were initially for, but that they actually conceived in the first place.

But Republicans don't like being reminded of this. Mitt Romney, in particular, really doesn't want to be reminded of the whole debate. Romney, when he began running for president, took a very hard tack to the right. All of a sudden he was against many things he had previously campaigned on during his run for the governor's office. Strongly against them. His flip-flopping is so extensive on so many varied issues that it is almost impossible to keep track of them all, in fact. It became an issue in the 2008 race, and it will likely also be an issue for him in the 2012 race. But most of these flip-flops have faded into the mists of the past, and Romney has gone a long way toward rehabilitating himself with the Republican Party base on issues such as abortion.

This is not likely to be the case for the Romneycare issue. I would bet the farm that this is the first thing Romney gets called upon in the first Republican candidate debate -- and that he will be hammered on the issue over and over again by the other contenders for the Republican nomination. It's a pretty safe bet that the other candidates will sense that Romney is incredibly weak on the issue with Republican voters. Romney will likely tie himself in rhetorical knots explaining why he was really against the whole idea -- but it may be to no avail.

Republicans, in normal times, nominate the guy who is "next in line" to be their standard-bearer in the presidential contest. The only two people who can make this case right now are Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee (Sarah Palin could also attempt to make this case, but it's a weaker argument to make). Huckabee, so far, doesn't appear to be very interested in running. That could change, however, if his poll numbers among Republicans continue to stay top-tier. But Romney is not being coy -- he's definitely running. He's really been running since the day after the 2008 election, so this comes as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.

Mitt Romney, if these were normal times for the Republican Party, would be almost a lock right now for the party's nomination. But, to put it mildly, these are not normal times at all for the party. In the first place, many Republicans who are being speculated about have kept their cards close to the vest when it comes to even declaring they're in the race. This goes against the trend of the past few elections, when everyone jumped in as early as possible. The first major televised Republican debate just got postponed six months, for instance, because of a lack of serious candidates. "Candidates" with nothing more than name recognition among the public are scoring highly in the polling (see: Trump, Donald), while the more serious contenders stay on the sidelines, hedging their bets for now.

Serious or not, though, Romney is soon going to be on a stage with other Republicans running for president. And Romneycare may prove to be his fatal flaw with the Republican electorate, especially with the Tea Party Republican base.

In anticipation of these Republican debates, I'd just like to wish Romneycare a happy fifth anniversary today. I realize Mitt himself would have to be dragged, kicking and screaming (no doubt), to any sort of "birthday party" for Romneycare these days. But, hopefully, someone in the mainstream media will run a clip of Governor Romney signing the bill today. That will have to do, for now.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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