Mitt Romney’s Confusing Health Care Comments

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach on Sept. 8, 2012

Now that Barack Obama is enthusiastically campaigning on the Affordable Care Act — even proudly referring to it as Obamacare — Mitt Romney is trying to blunt criticism that his plan to scrap health care reform is bad news for young adults and sick people. Responding to a question from David Gregory on Meet the Press, Romney said on Sunday:

I’m not getting rid of all of health care reform. Of course, there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I’m going to put in place. One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage. Two is to assure that the marketplace allows for individuals to have policies that cover their family up to whatever age they might like.

The Romney-Ryan campaign has been, as Paul Krugman points out, twisting itself in knots trying to clarify the GOP presidential candidate’s surprising and seemingly confusing comments. But is there really anything new here? As Katrina Trinko writes, back in June, Romney said he was in favor of health reform guaranteeing that people with pre-existing conditions have access to new insurance if they change or lose their job. This isn’t the same as Obamacare’s pre-existing-conditions policy. Romney’s plan refers to only people who already have coverage and, as far as I can tell, makes no allowance for people with a pre-existing condition who are currently uninsured and therefore sicker overall and receiving expensive care in emergency departments across the country.

But still, this is not the first time Romney has said that if he were in the White House, his health care policy would help cover folks with pre-existing conditions. What is new is that Romney used the word like in reference to how he feels about Obamacare, and the press is forcing him to defend his promise to “repeal Obamacare” on Day One.

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Let’s start with the like comment. Remember when Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said the move from a primary to a general-election campaign is “like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again”? With the conclusion of the convention, the Romney campaign has moved into full-blown general-election mode, and the candidate’s health care comments are part of that — an appeal to independent and undecided voters, for whom insurance coverage for 20-somethings and sick people is a popular policy idea.

Second, this is a lesson in how politics and the media intersect. The Democratic National Convention marked a noticeable change in how Obama talks about health care reform. As Ezra Klein writes, if “the first night of the Democratic Convention is to be remembered for anything aside from Michelle Obama’s speech, it will probably be remembered as the night that Democrats stood up and began fighting for their health-care law.” For the past two years, as the White House has avoided a full-throated championing of the Affordable Care Act, the media coverage of it has largely focused on unpopular pieces like the individual mandate, new taxes and Medicare cuts. Since Obama has shifted to a more visible defense of the law, the media focus seems like it has zeroed in on Romney’s and Republicans’ plans to repeal legislation that would expand coverage and help sick people get insurance. Maybe a foil like Romney is exactly what Obama needed in order to proudly tout health care reform.

Expect Romney to remain defensive on this issue. Health care was never going to be a winning issue for a Republican candidate who, as governor of Massachusetts, laid the groundwork for the Affordable Care Act by passing a similar law in his state. Romney is in an impossible political position. Republicans always knew that much of the power of anti-Obamacare rhetoric would be lost if Romney became the GOP presidential nominee. What they might not have anticipated is how powerful the pro-Obamacare rhetoric could be for the President.