Oh Mitt Romney. The man runs a near flawless campaign. Every debate barb is rehearsed. Every stump speech is focus-group perfect. Every strand of hair in place. And when he does err, he’s not even necessarily wrong. He just occasionally phrases things so poorly that the sound of palms meeting foreheads in his campaign’s Boston HQ can be heard up and down the East Coast.
At the Nashua Chamber of Commerce on Monday morning, Romney was explaining that buying your health insurance through a large corporate employer is the only way to get tax deductible coverage in the U.S., and that those companies, who aren’t thrilled to be in the insurance business to begin with, offer very few choices to their employees. Linking insurance to large employers is madness, he argued, because everyone who doesn’t work for one gets short shrift while those who do can’t really pick their own plan. Many health care economists agree with these points and it’s something that, when explained clearly, can appeal to many Americans. The U.S. system is flawed. Decoupling insurance infrastructure from employers would be a sea change in America. Fascinating stuff.
Here’s where things went south: “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” he said, describing why employees would want to be able to have greater freedom in picking a plan. “If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me.” This, in case you didn’t notice, amounts to Christmas come 11 and a half months early for the Obama campaign. Cut, print, attack ad. Misleadingly whip this up with layoff testimonials from his Bain Capital days, his “corporations are people my friend” line and presto, you’ve got general election-grade munitions.
It’s kind of a shame. Romney’s making a worthwhile point about the health insurance system that will get lost in the frenzy of his incredibly unfortunate phrasing. It also distracts from an actually questionable point of substance, when Romney bemoaned that to American customers, insurance appears to be free. “In some places overseas, they have this idea of co-insurance, where people are responsible for a percent of their bill,” he said. Co-insurance is increasingly common in the U.S. and many, if not most major plans now make patients pay some of their bill. A minor quibble perhaps, but he seemed to imply there’s no co-insurance here, which is wrong.
The Romneyian gaffe, on the other hand, the one that will get all the attention, is rarely factually inaccurate. He lives his big businessman persona, he sees spreadsheets everywhere he looks. And the most natural way for Romney to explain the tyranny of the employer health insurance system is to describe it as a service-provider you can’t fire. It really would be nice to be able to decouple our health insurance infrastructure from employers. Corporations really are groups of people who share rights with individuals according to the Supreme Court. Romney probably would win that $10,000 bet with Perry about the wording of the health care chapter in Romney’s campaign book. But these things come off as tone-deaf and, some used fairly, others not, will comprise the Democratic arsenal if (when) he becomes his party’s nominee. As Dan Balz writes in the Washington Post:
Obama’s advisers view Romney through two prisms. Through one they see a formidable opponent who can make the economic argument against the president more effectively than any of the other Republicans running and who has been disciplined in the way he has carried himself so far. Through the other, they see someone whose career in the private sector has left him vulnerable to questions about whether he can truly connect with the independent, middle-class voters who will decide the November election.
The latter prism is the one Obama will try to show voters during the general election. And though Romney doesn’t often make mistakes, when he does, they seem to fall in that capitalist baron spectrum.