While he's still considered the frontrunner in many circles, Mitt Romney may already have fumbled his biggest opportunity to cement his status as a leading critic of President Barack Obama and boost his chances with the skeptical conservative base he needs to win over to have a shot at the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
All it would’ve taken was admitting he was wrong.
Five years ago Romney strode to a dais to announce his ambitious health care plan in Boston, Ted Kennedy at his shoulder, between signs reading “Making History in Healthcare.” Romney was hailed for a rare achievement—applying pro-market views through a managed marketplace for insurance, paired with an individual mandate.
He made the case for his universal coverage plan in the pages of The Wall Street Journal: “Every uninsured citizen in Massachusetts will soon have affordable health insurance and the costs of health care will be reduced. And we will need no new taxes, no employer mandate and no government takeover to make this happen.”
Sounds like the way the Democrats later sold Obamacare, right?
Today, there is little doubt Romney’s promises were too good to be true. His policies have increased costs and wait times. Health insurance premiums rose in Massachusetts faster than anywhere else in the country—as much as 46 percent faster than the national average for some populations. Despite having harsher penalties for noninsurance than Obama’s law, Romney’s plan resulted in thousands of residents gaming the individual mandate—purchasing health insurance only when they need medical care, and dropping out when they don’t.
Romney’s policies increased employer-sponsored health insurance premiums, shifted costs to the private market, and led to the egregious price controls now being imposed by his successor, Democrat Gov. Deval Patrick—bringing the private insurance market to the brink of collapse.
Once viewed as Romney’s crowning achievement, this policy has become an ever-present political millstone for him. The “Romneycare” epithet drags behind the former Massachusetts governor whenever he speaks to conservatives. He has denied that his plan served as the model for Obama’s despised health care law, stripped passages about it from the reissue of his latest book, and inserted increasingly antagonistic language denying any policy ancestry for Obama’s plan.
Try as he might, of course, Romney cannot change the facts. Yet it would’ve been incredibly easy for him to change things during the debate over Obamacare, simply by admitting he had tried a policy, at the time untested, in the belief that it would work—and, sadly, it failed.
Nobody enjoys admitting a mistake, but had Romney done so during the Obamacare debate he could have vaulted to the first ranks of Obama’s critics on health policy. He could've spoken critically from a position of authority on the ramifications of a subsidy, exchange, and individual mandate-based system. After all, Romney had the excuse of not having known the full ramifications of the policy when he signed on, and his concepts had significant support from several large and influential groups on the center-right.
But instead of showing he had learned the right lessons from his experience, Romney stood by as Obama upped the ante—essentially taking Romneycare nationwide with larger subsidies, harsher price controls, and lower penalties for gaming the mandate. He can’t plausibly say his plan was good and Obamacare is bad.
Authentic humility is a rare virtue in modern politicians, and the vast majority of those who run for president have little of it. If Romney, the current frontrunner, misses out on the 2012 nomination, his political obituary will begin with this tale of his unwillingness to engage in honest self-assessment—his lasting inability, like so many other politicians, to admit that he just might be wrong.
Benjamin Domenech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Health Care News.