Taking on an issue that threatens to undermine his 2012 presidential bid, Republican contender Mitt Romney argued Thursday that the health care overhaul plan he signed as governor of Massachusetts was a constitutionally acceptable policy experiment by a state while President Obama’s similar health care law represented an unconstitutional power grab by Washington.
Still, in a professorial speech in a lecture hall at the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center, complete with slides, Mr. Romney defended the individual mandate that was the crux of his plan in Massachusetts - and is the centerpiece of the law Mr. Obama signed last year - but is anathema to many Republican primary voters.
A constitutional challenge to Mr. Obama’s law, joined by more than half the states, focuses precisely on the individual mandate question and whether the government can force citizens to buy health insurance or pay a hefty fine.
Despite the similarities in the two reforms, Mr. Romney vowed Thursday that the first step he would take in the White House would be to issue an executive order allowing all 50 states to opt out of the federal law.
“Our plan was a state solution to a state problem, and his is a power grab by the federal government to put in place a one-size-fits-all plan across the nation,” Mr. Romney said. He insisted that his plan was not a “government takeover of health care,” but rather a way to insure the uninsured and decrease the likelihood that workers would lose coverage if they are between jobs.
Sold as a chance for Mr. Romney to lay out his vision for the future, the speech had just as much to do with the past, providing the 2012 GOP front-runner with another opportunity to divorce the universal health care plan he signed in 2006 from Mr. Obama’s plan.
The comparisons have dogged him for months, and many conservatives say “Romneycare” paved the way for “Obamacare.” The early reviews suggest that Mr. Romney still has some skeptics to win over.
In a scathing editorial Thursday, the Wall Street Journal wrote that the fate of Mr. Obama’s health care law “may be the central question of the 2012 election.”
“On that question, Mr. Romney is compromised and not credible,” the paper wrote. “If he does not change his message, he might as well try to knock off Joe Biden and get on the Obama ticket.”
Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist, said that the ex-governor’s struggle with “Romneycare” is symptomatic of larger questions about Mr. Romney’s political core beliefs.
“His biggest problem is that he either has no idea of who he is politically or he doesn’t like who he is and keeps trying to change it,” Mr. Elleithee said.
Mr. Elleithee said that Mr. Romney ran as a progressive in his failed 1994 U.S. Senate bid in Massachusetts, as a conservative in his failed 2008 presidential race, and now is running away from his marquee legislative achievement in his second bid for the White House.
Democratic Party officials have taken delight in pointing out the similarities between the Romney and Obama plans in emails and press releases sent to reporters in recent weeks.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in an interview on “Good Morning America” Thursday that the former governor was “twisting his head into a pretzel” trying to escape his political dilemma over health care.