- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2011

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.

Mr. Obama - and Mr. Romney when he defended the Massachusetts law in the past - say the mandate is constitutional and necessary if a program to greatly expand health care coverage is to work.

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.

Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, said Mr. Romney was smart as a matter of policy to join the chorus of Republicans who want to junk the new national health care law in favor of pro-market reforms.

Mr. Norquist said that, politically, Mr. Romney failed in the speech to square his state record with what he now says are his national policy goals.

“It’s an unsatisfactory answer of ‘Why?’ ” Mr. Norquist said, adding that the question remains: “Why would you be against a mandate nationally, but for it in Massachusetts?”

In his speech, Mr. Romney said that while his Massachusetts plan was not perfect, he was “proud” of the effort and made his case that the individual mandate was the best way for Massachusetts to handle the “free riders” - people who could afford insurance but chose not to buy it and who were costing the state “hundreds of millions of dollars a year.”

He said his legislation required residents to “have insurance or we are going to charge you for the cost of the fact that the state is going to have to cover you if you get seriously ill and the charge maximum is about $120 a month.”

In a five-plank federal plan rolled out in the lecture hall, Mr. Romney said as president he would grant more power and flexibility to states by block-granting Medicaid payments and easing federal standards. His plan would also promote individual coverage through tax deductions for those who buy their own insurance; allow people to buy insurance across state lines; and reduce the influence of lawsuits by capping damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Mr. Romney dedicated the opening of his remarks to his reading of American history and drove home the point that his health care plan was built on the federalist approach to governance that is spelled out in the 10th Amendment, reserving to the states all the powers not explicitly granted to the federal government. It’s a philosophy that also has been a rallying cry for the tea party movement and a bedrock of the conservative movement for decades.

Despite the political baggage over health care, polls show that Mr. Romney still leads the crowded Republican field of potential White House hopefuls eight months ahead of the first primary in New Hampshire.

But a recent WMUR Granite State poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire, also found that Mr. Romney’s ability to distance himself from Mr. Obama’s health care plan will be of immense importance. Just 35 percent of New Hampshire adults favor the reform law, while 52 percent oppose it. Among the New Hampshire Republicans surveyed, just 5 percent support Mr. Obama’s plan.

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