Never Thought I'd Say This: I'm Proud of Mitt Romney

I couldn’t believe it as I read the coverage yesterday and again this morning: Mitt Romney took a stand, an actual firm stand, not only defending the health care law he helped shape as our governor but outlining his new vision, an alternative to ObamaCare. I’m not the only one who thinks that this is a return to the old Mitt, the Mitt as problem solver, the Mitt as policy wonk. Maybe even the Mitt that Massachusetts elected.

He’s been killed by the right for this speech. That’s another way to say that yesterday will likely be the last time Romney takes as baldly assertive a stance on any issue of national policy. And that’s really another way to talk a bit about Romney’s problem. He’s smarter than the people who would like to elect him.

In all of the last few days’ coverage of Romney’s big health care speech, no story has been as cogent or as intriguing as Jonathan Cohn’s, The New Republic’s health care impresario. Cohn’s analysis of yesterday boils down to this: “Romney could be a great policy wonk. But he has to run in the Republican primary. And wonkery is dead there.” Romney’s correct from a policy perspective to defend insurance mandates for all; without them, any universal health care plan suffers tremendously from the free loaders who will only take out insurance when they need it, which will only increase the costs for everyone. But, as Cohn notes, you can’t explain that to the Republican electorate, because a mandate sounds a lot like an encroachment of personal freedom.

So Romney yesterday was in the strange position — and with this topic, there are only strange positions for Mitt Romney — of arguing that each state should be able to decide upon its own health care plan, as Massachusetts did, and furthermore that there should be no national health care policy. A couple problems with that stance: 1) Romney supported a nationwide plan with an individual mandate back in 1994; and 2) ObamaCare is modeled on the Massachusetts plan. In fact, as Cohn notes, many of the same people who worked with Romney on universal care worked with Obama. But the similarities don’t end there. Cohn again:

Both set up insurance exchanges for people without access to employer insurance. Both require insurers to provide coverage to anybody, at the same price. Both have an individual mandate. Both have subsidies. Both expand Medicaid coverage. Both seek to cover most, if not quite all, residents. Both set requirements for what insurance must cover. I could go on.

So even amid Romney’s borderline inspiring speech, he was flip-flopping, or, if I’m being charitable, avoiding uncomfortable truths. Among the right, this equivocation is as big a character flaw for Romney as RomneyCare itself. Among the left, it’s further proof that all Republicans are mindless, with no serious proposals for any of our nation’s ills. In the end, I guess I feel bad for Romney. (And, wow, I never thought I’d say that.) He really likes to identify problems and fix them as he sees fit. But his ideas at this point are too closely bound to his public persona: the hair, the white teeth, the athletic, milk-drinking, clean-living schema of a man who will do anything, say anything, to become president. When the day arrives that he actually says something, few want to listen. Because what is he really angling for?