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The Romney campaign’s big health care blunder

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein

Last week, I got into a debate with David Frum over his post arguing that Mitt Romney should use his Massachusetts health care law to counter charges that he’s unsympathetic to the middle class. We’ll now have a chance to see how that strategy plays out, as it appears as if the Romney campaign has decided to take Frum’s advice.

As readers likely know, this week, Priorities USA, the Obama-supporting super PAC, released an ad that not very subtly accuses Romney of being responsible for a woman’s cancer death. The absurd ad has been widely discredited, not just by the conservative media, but also by outlets such as CNN. Even liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent writes that, “I think the ad goes too far.” So countering the ad would seem like a slam dunk for the Romney campaign.

Yet, the Politico notes:

 A Mitt Romney spokesperson offered an unusual counterattack Wednesday to an ad in which a laid-off steelworker blames the presumptive GOP nominee for his family losing health care: If that family had lived in Massachusetts, it would have been covered by the former governor’s universal health care law.

“To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care,” Andrea Saul, Romney’s campaign press secretary, said during an appearance on Fox News.

Where to start? Romney, as we all know, adopted a health care law as governor of Massachusetts that was a model for President Obama’s national health care law. Both laws force individuals to purchase insurance, expand Medicaid and provide subsidies for individuals to purchase government-designed insurance policies on government-run exchanges. Throughout his campaign, Romney has been performing a delicate balancing act, defending his own plan while calling for the repeal of Obamacare. But Saul’s response here creates a huge opening for defenders of the national health care law.

The central difference between conservatives and liberals on health care is that conservative solutions tend to focus on reducing health care costs by removing government policies that create barriers to the free market and distort incentives. Reducing costs and increasing choices, we argue, will in turn increase access. Liberals, on the other hand, believe that more government intervention is needed to correct market failures and make sure everybody is covered.

It isn’t too hard for the Obama campaign and his liberal allies to use Saul’s comments in defense of Obamacare. The essential argument is: the Romney campaign acknowledges that people in Massachusetts don’t have to worry about losing their health care if they’re unemployed because of a law that includes a mandate, Medicaid expansion and subsidies, and Obama wants to make sure the rest of the country enjoys those same benefits, while Romney wants to repeal the health care law. It didn’t take long for the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff to write a post entitled, “Romneycare would cover an unemployed cancer patient. Obamacare will too.” And as Talking Points Memo’s Benjy Sarlin notes, this isn’t a one off statement by Saul. Romney himself has increasingly been touting his health care law on the stump.

It’s hard to say what type of political ramifications this specific development will have, but I do think it’s an example of a broader problem. Romney consistently attempts to make up with tactics what he lacks in vision. Romney’s campaign isn’t driven by any core ideology or governing philosophy, but by responding to news cycles. It is a campaign that was perhaps best summed up by senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, when he proudly tweeted yesterday, “On Fox just now Romney was asked to respond to ‘RomneyHood’ charge and called it ‘Obamaloney.’” Conservatives, rest assured – Romney will not allow himself to be called a childish nickname without responding by calling Obama a childish nickname.

So, if Romney thinks touting his past support for government-run health care today can help defend against baseless attacks on his business career, then he’ll tout away, even if it’ll weaken the case against government-run health care he’ll make tomorrow.

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Philip Klein

Commentary Editor
The Washington Examiner