Over the weekend, Politico broke the news that Mitt Romney had tapped Mike Leavitt, the former Utah Governor and HHS Secretary under George W. Bush, to lead the transition effort should Romney win the presidency. This is a very worrisome signal to conservatives holding out hope that Romney will live up to his promises to fight for limited government if elected. As Ben Domenech details, Leavitt is one of the few Republicans who has been actively campaigning for governors to implement Obamacare’s health care exchanges at the state level. Conveniently enough, his consultancy group would profit from such an expansion of government because he has won contracts to set up the exchanges.
Though a lot of the reaction to the Leavitt appointment has focused on support for the key component of Obamacare, it’s worth noting that as governor of a very conservative state, Leavitt expanded government and fought efforts to cut taxes. As governor of Utah, Leavitt received a “D” in the Cato Institute’s 2002 fiscal policy report card – the same grade as Howard Dean that year, making him “one of the most pro–big government governors.” According to the report:
Leavitt has shown time and again that he is to the left of his party—so much so that he was nearly defeated during the Republican nominating convention in 2000. The legislature has on many occasions pushed pro-growth tax policies, only to have them rejected by Leavitt. Last year, the legislature passed a $25 million tax cut that included income tax relief. Leavitt insisted on a tax cut one-fifth that size… The only two taxes that he has reduced were the sales tax and the unemployment tax. Leavitt is a big spender extraordinaire. During his 10 years in office, real spending per capita has risen by nearly one-third. He backed a massive $2.6 billion highway construction bill and hiked the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon to pay for it. In 2000, Leavitt backed a 7.4 percent hike in school spending, the largest increase since the early 1980s. He says improving education is the “keystone to our state’s success,” but he opposes voucher reforms. He does deserve credit for dealing with the budget crisis this year without asking for major new taxes, and he has finally slowed spending growth, but he did agree to a cigarette tax hike. The budget nonetheless faces a $175 million shortfall for 2003. Leavitt has also become known in Washington as “Mr. Internet Tax.” As head of the National Governors Association, he lobbied incessantly for a federal law to allow states to tax out-of-state Internet companies. It is ironic that one of the most conservative states in the union has one of the most pro–big government governors.
Leavitt, in short, was exactly the type of Republican the Tea Party was founded to oppose, and he’s playing a key role in planning a potential Romney presidency, and as the Politico reports, “already, plugged-in Republicans from Washington to Salt Lake City are buzzing that Leavitt could make his own transition next January into the job of White House chief of staff or as a-Valerie Jarrett like personal counselor to a President Romney.”
This is troubling on several levels. To start, as we all know, Romney’s Massachusetts health care law served as the model for Obamacare. Both plans expand Medicaid, force individuals to purchase government-approved insurance coverage and provide subsidies for people to purchase government-designed insurance on government-run exchanges. Romney was a big proponent of exchanges and supported them as governor, and now has named a leading Republican advocate of them to a key post. The Romney campaign still insists to Matt Lewis that they still plan on repealing Obamacare. But even if we trust that’s the case (something that deserves greater skepticism given the Leavitt news) the question is what replaces Obamacare. Romney has been incredibly vague about how he would reform the health care system in the absence of Obamacare. The danger is that he could end up replacing it with a system that still has exchanges, but exchanges that are billed as having fewer regulations, lower subsidies and giving more flexibility to states. The problem is that this would still put the basic exchange infrastructure in place that a future Democratic administration could build on so the country would eventually wind up with Obamacare anyway – or something worse.
Beyond the health care issue, there’s the cronyism issue involved. One of the biggest dangers of a Romney “CEO presidency” is that his business background would make him conflate being pro-business with being pro-free market. But as we’ve seen time and again, these are two separate things. As somebody who stands to personally profit if more states implement Obamacare exchanges, Leavitt clearly comes from the tradition of a Republican Party that’s perfectly okay with expanding government in the name of helping business. This is something we saw during the Bush administration, most prominently, with the subsidies for drug companies in the Medicare prescription drug law (which Leavitt helped implement ass HHS Secretary) and the Wall Street bailout.
Through their appointments, candidates send signals about how they intend to govern if elected. Romney putting a big government Republican like Leavitt in such a key role should be seen as a huge red flag for conservatives.