Mitt Romney is haunted by an evil twin. The twin defends his health care reform in Massachusetts, the model for President Barack Obama’s version which also uses an “individual mandate” to force people to buy health insurance — an idea that enrages conservatives.
But the Romney we know denounces Obama’s health care reform as a “power grab,” a “government takeover of health care,” and an “economic nightmare.”
This Romney, who aspires to be the Republican presidential nominee, is trying urgently to separate itself from his liberal twin — but the brightest minds in health care have been unable to help him with this logical leap.
And so the Romney twins presented themselves to an audience at the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center on Thursday for a consult. Based on the symptoms, the prognosis is grim.
“Good morning,” he told his audience — a little after 2 pm.
“You’ve got companies here in Massachusetts like Parago,” he told them — in Ann Arbor. Parago is based in Texas.
He shuffled his notes and tripped over words, turning “human resources” into “human rights.” Asked a question by a member of the audience, he hunted for a paper on his lectern, saying, “Yeah, I’m going to — I’m going to — well, I had my — my list here — well, I can’t quite find it.”
It was difficult not to feel pity for Romney in his effort to separate from himself. He’s the titular Republican presidential front-runner, whose business smarts should make him a solid bet to defeat Obama in this economy. But on the issue that matters most to Republicans, health care, he might as well be, as The Wall Street Journal dubbed him Thursday, “Obama’s Running Mate.” The Journal editorialized that Romney was “compromised and not credible” because of his Massachusetts law, “the prototype for President Obama’s.”
Adding to Romney’s misery, a liberal group in Massachusetts uncovered a 1994 quote in which he supported a plan that would have imposed a nationwide individual mandate — the exact thing Romney now criticizes Obama for doing.
On Thursday, Romney pretended that he had never held such a position, maintaining that only states, not the feds, should be able to force people to buy insurance. Yet even then, Romney gave a more powerful defense of the mandate than Obama has.
“We found in our state we were spending hundreds of million of dollars a year giving out care to people, many of whom could afford to buy their own insurance,” he explained. His solution was “to insist on personal responsibility, and to say to folks who could afford to buy insurance: Either buy insurance yourself, or pay your own way.”
The other Romney twin, though, argued the other side, using the word “Obamacare” 15 times to disparage the reforms he inspired. Obama and his advisers, he said, “fundamentally distrust free enterprise.” Romney’s current health care plan, he boasted, “includes no mandates.”
Romney has what might be called an Al Gore problem: Even if he’s being genuine, he seems ersatz. He assumed a professorial air by delivering a 25-page PowerPoint presentation in an amphitheater lecture hall — but the university issued a statement saying it had nothing to do with the event, for which the sponsoring college Republicans failed to fill all seats. His very appearance — a suit worn without a necktie — shouted equivocation. His hair was so slick that only a few strands defied the product.
But Romney’s slippery air comes less from pomade than from policies — abortion, gay rights and now health care — changed over time as expedience required. His calibrations continued Thursday. In one breath, he wanted to “applaud” Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., for proposing a plan that ends the Medicare guarantee. In the next breath, he said his own plan “is not going to be identical to the Ryan plan.” How about some specifics, governor? “They’ll be coming,” he said.
Romney, who drew laughter when he acknowledged that his old health reform law is no longer “an asset politically,” allowed that his Talmudic effort to dissociate Romneycare from Obamacare “is not going to satisfy everybody.” But that evidently won’t stop him from trying to split the baby.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is email@example.com.