Mitt Romney talks a big game about repealing Obamacare on the campaign trail these days. But in the wake of the law's passage, he had a more modest goal: "repeal the bad and keep the good."
That's a line that Romney himself used at a 2010 appearance that has now resurfaced. In the video, which Ben Domenech has more on and I've posted below, Romney makes many of the same arguments that would be familiar to those following the GOP primary. He says that his Massachusetts plan was different because it was at the state level and argues that his plan didn't raise taxes (I've rebutted those arguments before). But he also does something you'll never hear him do these days --note the similarities between the two laws.
In the video, Romney says "we have an incentive for people to become insured." In case you were wondering, that's a euphemism for the individual mandate, which provides an "incentive" by forcing individuals to purchase insurance under the threat of a fine. He also reminds the audience that like Obama's law, his legislation forced insurers to cover people with preexisting conditions and created an exchange for individuals to purchase insurance.
At the end of the clip, Romney concludes: "So, some similarities, some differences. And I hope we'll be able to eliminate some of the differences. Repeal the bad and keep the good."
It's worth putting this video in context. In the wake of the passage of the national health care law, a number of prominent Republicans were coming out in favor of only partial repeal and Romney was part of that crowd. This video is not an isolated incident.
When Romney's political action committee launched its "Prescription for Repeal" campaign immediately after the health care law passed, it promised "to support conservative candidates who will repeal the worst aspects of Obamacare" (emphasis mine). The original version of the press release no longer exists on Romney's website since it was converted to his presidential campaign site, but at the time, Kathryn Jean Lopez posted it at NRO's Corner, so you can still read it there.
This sparked a big debate over what he meant by the "worst aspects." In April 2010, one blogger, Kavon Nikrad, recounted that he asked Romney at a book signing if he considered the individual mandate one of the “worst aspects” of Obamacare that he’d want to repeal, and that Romney said “no.” There was no audio or video of the incident and Romney’s spokesman pushed back and said that Romney would favor repeal of the mandate, so it never received more attention and I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that it might have been a misunderstanding. Though Romney’s reference in the newly-surfaced video to the fact that his plan and Obamacare both include an “incentive” for people to buy insurance makes it seem theoretically plausible that he was okay with keeping the mandate at the time.
In any event, as time went on, after a fierce backlash from conservatives and Tea Party activists, Republicans who initially spoke of partial repeal soon migrated to backing full repeal, and that became the official stance for Republicans. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is one prominent Republican who had to quickly backtrack after comments suggesting he only wanted to repeal part of the law. And Romney eventually came around, too.
There are two ways to analyze the significance of Romney's initial position on partial repeal, and eventual shift to supporting full repeal. The optimistic view is that now that he’s come around to repealing all of Obamacare, conservatives can trust that this is what he’d do as president. The pessimistic view is that his initial reluctance to come out in favor of full repeal raises more doubts that he’d actually pursue full repeal of the health care law as president. I think the pessimistic view is the more realistic one.
The video demonstrates that his first instinct was to be sympathetic to many key components of Obamacare that he also championed in Massachusetts. Also, at the time he made the comments, it wasn’t as clear where the polling would go, so Romney was hedging his bets because he feared that the public would want to maintain some of the more popular aspects of the law (such as forcing insurers to cover those with pre-existing conditions, which won’t work without a mandate).
Further, as I’ve noted time and again, Romney's repeal claims during the campaign don’t hold up to much scrutiny. For months, he promised to issue Obamacare waivers to all 50 states on the first day of his presidency to get repeal started – but when he visited the Examiner offices and I pointed out to him that the waivers he was talking about wouldn’t kick in until 2017 under the terms of the law, he struggled to answer, and told me to talk to his lawyer. (More here). He also boasted he would send a reconciliation bill to Congress on the second day of his presidency to repeal the law, something that’s not possible (as I explained here). But in some sense, all this parsing is a wasted exercise. Everything we know about Romney’s record tells us to not trust anything he says while he’s campaigning for office, because his positions will change when he’s trying to appeal to a different electorate. (In case you missed it, see my post on how Romney went from describing himself as a “progressive” non-partisan Republican to a “conservative Republican” during a 27-month period in his mid-50s.)
To be clear, I don’t believe that Romney would outright veto an Obamacare repeal bill if it made it to his desk. But given the legislative obstacles involved, no bill would get that far in the first place without serious presidential leadership. What I see as a more likely scenario is that Romney would get into office, issue some mostly symbolic executive orders that will tinker around the edges, and then prioritize other parts of his agenda, arguing that he intends to repeal Obamacare, but needs to build up political capital first. Then he’d slowly retreat back to his position to repeal the “worst aspects” of the law. The one hope for changing this would be for conservatives – and their allies in Congress – to raise hell every single day and make it clear that Romney will not get anything done until the health care law is repealed. Basically, what conservatives need to do is make it so that when Romney goes through his calculations, it becomes clear that not pursuing repeal is going to be a lot more politically damaging than going through with it. Of course, Republican presidents have thumbed their noses at conservatives before.