Should Romney Apologize for RomneyCare?

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I had my hands full with some editing for a couple weeks and was therefore off the blog, so I’m somewhat late to join the interesting conversation about whether Mitt Romney should apologize for stewarding a universal health care plan into law when he was governor of Massachusetts. One provocative line of analysis holds that RomneyCare is the political equivalent of Hillary Clinton’s 2003 vote to authorize the Iraq War–i.e., an act that may have seemed politically expedient in its original context but now looms as a potential primary-process disqualifier.

Unfortunately for Romney, in some ways he’s in an even worse position now than Hillary was in 2008.

In her support for the Iraq resolution Clinton wasn’t some Democratic outlier. Most Senate Democrats voted the same way (though only a minority of House Democrats did), including other party leaders like the eventual 2004 Democratic nominee, John Kerry. Those Democrats could cite hawkish but respected voices throughout the party egging them on.

Romney, by contrast, is close to unique in his position. He can’t point to many other major Republicans who shared his view about health care at the time. And unlike Democrats and Iraq, no other Republican leaders are personally invested in defending his health care plan.

To me, Romney’s best case here is to argue that it’s one thing to impose a health care mandate in a state of about 6.5 million people, and another to create a system for a nation of 300 million. The ambition of Obama’s plan was exponentially greater–and also involved the nefarious specter of Washington, whereas Romney did his work from a State House.

Along related lines, the Boston Globe‘s Glen Johnson offers this analysis today:

Obama has delighted in declaring that his plan was modeled on Romney’s, muddying a potential 2012 opponent in the process. But he may have given the former governor the most viable form of cover this week: The president shifted course and said he would not object to allowing states to design their own programs, as long as they are at least as good as the federal law that is being put into effect.

That sounds like the message that has been coming from Romney ever since he transitioned from governor to presidential candidate.

Romney will take it, but it feels to me like a thin reed to grasp. Republican primary voters are mad as hell, and may not be interested in such nuanced distinctions.

So should Romney apologize? It’s not as easy as it sounds. The catch-22 here is the risk that, like Hillary in 2008, any mea culpa might affirm Romney’s reputation as a shameless political chameleon. Not to mention the fact, as Jon Chait has noted, that Romney has rather prominently billed himself as a No Apology kind of guy.

The good news for Romney is that, as we get distance from the health care debate, GOP passions may cool. The 2008 Democratic primaries took shape just as the Iraq surge was fully underway, with U.S. troop casualties at gut-wrenching levels.

So for now, it looks like Romney is going to own his health care plan and spin as best he can. One Romney advisor makes the case to me that “[the Massachusetts] experience-what went right, what went wrong-still allows the governor to showcase his ability to confront complex problems and display a command of the issues involved.” That tack may be Romney’s least-bad option at this point.

Watch to see whether Romney says anything new on the subject when he stumps in New Hampshire this weekend.