If Monday night's GOP presidential debate is any indication, Romneycare may not be the liability it once was for Mitt Romney. The former Bay State governor took fewer punches on the issue than before and seemed to have absorbed most of the blows.
During the debate, Romney once again defended the health care law he signed into Massachusetts law and insisted that Barack Obama’s signature legislation, Obamacare, ought to be repealed. Romney said he would also “direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to grant a waiver from Obamacare to all 50 states” on his first day in office. Then his chief rival went on the attack.
Texas governor Rick Perry pointed out similarities in the two plans, trying to weaken Romney by tying him directly to Obama. “The fact of the matter is that [Romneycare] was the plan that President Obama has said himself was the model for Obamacare,” Perry said. “And I think any of us who know that that piece of legislation will draw a line between the doctor-patient relationship, that will cost untold billions of dollars. It is not right for this country, and frankly I don’t think it was right for Massachusetts when you look at what it’s costing the people of Massachusetts today.”
Romney playfully shot back. “I’d be careful about trusting what President Obama says as to what the source was to his plan,” he said, arguing there are major policy differences between the two laws. “He raised taxes $500 billion and helped slow down the U.S. economy by doing. We didn’t raise taxes. He cut Medicare by $500 billion.…We dealt with the people in our state that were uninsured, some nine percent. His bill deals with 100 percent of the people. He puts in place a panel that ultimately is going to tell people what kind of care they can have. We didn’t do anything like that.”
Minnesota congressman Michele Bachmann also criticized Romneycare, arguing that states have no constitutional authority to mandate the purchase of goods or services, a direct hit on the Massachusetts plan’s mandate.
Yet there was little else said about Romneycare for the rest of the night.
Compare that to last week's debate at the Reagan Library in California, when Perry burst out of the gate and called Romney's plan an example of "what will not work." Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman also got into the action last week, referring to one provision of Romneycare as a "heavy-handed and expensive mandate that has caused [health insurance costs] for the average family in Massachusetts to go up 2,500 bucks a year." Asked if the Massachusetts reforms provided a "great opportunity" for the rest of the country, every candidate (except Romney) said, "no."
So where was the criticism of Romney's health care policy this time around? Since Romney entered the presidential race earlier this year, his positions on Romneycare and Obamacare have been pretty well flushed out. Sure, there are Republicans who won’t vote for Romney because of Romneycare—but they’ve probably already made up their minds. Even this early in the process, spending debate time criticizing Romneycare may have diminishing marginal returns.
Additionally, Romney’s defense, regardless of its merits, is more fluid than it was. The candidate, often criticized for his rigidity, has become more comfortable in discussing what is arguably his biggest weakness in the Republican primary. “The people of Massachusetts favor our plan by three to one,” Romney said in Monday's debate. “And states can make their own choices. I’m happy to stand up for what we did.”
Romney has become more skillful, too, at shifting the focus of the health care debate away from the past and toward his policy proposals for the future. Answering a question about bringing down the cost of health care—as opposed to health insurance—Romney explained how the costs of care are hidden from consumers. “The person who receives care in America generally doesn’t care how much it costs, because once they’ve paid their deductible, it’s free,” he said. “And the provider, the more they do, the more they get paid. We have something that’s not working like a market, it’s working like a government utility.”
Romney’s decision early on not to disavow Romneycare certainly cost him credibility with an element of the Republican base, many of whom were already wary of the former governor after his failed effort to court conservatives in 2008. But recent attacks on Romney’s health care positions just don’t seem to be sticking like his opponents had hoped. And he seems to have helped himself entirely by sticking up for repealing Obamacare every step of the way.