Re: When Mitt “Repeal” Romney…

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Michael, I’m reading Swampland while I’m on vacation (doesn’t everyone?), and your post reminded me of a story that I did on Romney and the Massachusetts health care plan back in November, 2007.

Indeed, he and Kennedy had been close allies in bringing universal coverage to the state. Here’s how it came about:

In November 2004, nearly two years after his meeting with Stemberg, Romney was finally ready to go public with the beginnings of a plan. As it evolved, it became a proposal to achieve an end that liberals had long dreamed of, but through conservative means: creating more competition in the private-insurance marketplace and insisting that Massachusetts citizens take personal responsibility for their own coverage. “From the minute you heard him articulate it, you knew this was a new concept in American health-care policy,” says Robert Blendon, a Harvard University professor of health policy. “It was a very different way of talking about coverage, and he was very articulate in framing it.”

Someone else took notice as well. No one has fought longer and harder for universal health coverage than Senator Edward Kennedy; he introduced a national health-insurance bill back in 1970. But he and the Governor were not exactly allies. Romney had challenged Kennedy for his Senate seat in 1994 in a nasty race. Reading the first outlines of Romney’s plan in the Boston Globe, Kennedy decided the Republican Governor was serious about the issue, and he told his staff to reach out to Romney’s advisers. Before long, Romney was in Kennedy’s office in Washington, taking his PowerPoint slides with him. “Had Senator Kennedy said, ‘This is a lousy idea, and I don’t want anything to do with it,’ I would have been back at square one,” he admits.

Kennedy was sold, and both men turned to the question of how to pay for the plan. Part of the money could be shifted from the existing $1.1 billion fund through which hospitals had been compensated for the care they were providing the uninsured. But to fund universal coverage, they desperately needed to persuade HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson to allow Massachusetts to keep the $385 million in Medicaid funds that Washington was threatening to take away. The money would also give them leverage back home with health-care providers and businesses, two powerful constituencies and potential opponents of reform.

Their talks with Thompson went right down to the wire. The HHS Secretary signed the deal in a marathon negotiation with Romney and Kennedy that ended on Jan. 26, 2005, his last day on the job, while his going-away party was getting under way. The agreement stipulated that the commonwealth could keep the money but only if it passed a universal-coverage law.

It had struck me too how little emphasis presidential candidate Romney was putting on this part of his record:

Everyone around Romney had assumed this achievement would be a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, showcasing the data-driven, goal-oriented, utterly pragmatic side of Romney. But that side of him has emerged only rarely on the 2008 trail. Instead, he rarely discusses the details of his Massachusetts plan and certainly doesn’t tout his partnership with Kennedy. As a presidential candidate, he cautiously adheres to by-the-book Republican dogma of giving individual states leeway in the form of tax breaks to design their own reforms.

Romney explains this seemingly odd tactical choice by arguing that he never intended for his Massachusetts plan to be a role model for the rest of the country. “An individual mandate in most states today–in all states but one–would be irresponsible and unfair,” Romney says. “Because in most states today, insurance is too expensive.” It does seem fair, however, to wonder: What happened to that other Mitt Romney, the one who wouldn’t be satisfied until he found the answer himself?