Can Romney Remain Absurd Until November?

If you will forgive yet another post on the implications of the Supreme Court’s ACA decision, it is important to understand that for all the “excitement” and “motivation” it may create among “base voters,” this development also makes every day on the campaign trail a tightrope for Mitt Romney. He was already going to have to navigate his way to November talking constantly about the economy and the federal budget even as he was stuck with economic and budget policies that would horrify swing voters if they were aware of them. And now there will be no escape from the subject of a national health reform initiative modeled on his own plan in a gubernatorial administration that now seems about a million years away from where he has landed ideologically in order to win his party’s presidential nomination.

National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh refers to Romney’s current positioning on health care as presenting an “Absurd Romney:”

The difficulty of Absurd Romney’s task is pointed up by Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who helped Romney design his 2006 health insurance program in Massachusetts. He says that the then-governor used reasoning and language very similar to that of Chief Justice John Roberts in arguing for the necessity of an individual mandate. While Roberts said that Congress did not have the right to mandate behavior, it did retain the right to “tax and spend,” including penalizing people for not buying health care.

“It’s a penalty for free riding on the system. That’s the way Gov. Romney talked about it,” says Gruber, who later became one of the key architects of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which was modeled in part on the Romney law. “Justice Roberts used similar language today.” Back in the 2000s, when Gruber demonstrated to Romney with computer models that, absent an individual mandate, one-third of Massachusetts’ poorest and sickest would remain uninsured (and drive up costs for everyone), Romney jumped on the point, instantly converted, says Gruber. Romney went at the problem “like a management consultant or an engineer” with no ideological taint, even against the advice of his conservative political advisers, Gruber says. “They were concerned about the politics of universal health care. He argued them down.”

Today, says Gruber, Romney is being “completely disingenuous” in arguing against a law whose principles he once embraced. And somewhat absurd. Gruber says Romney’s suggestion that, as in Massachusetts when he was governor, states should be permitted to decide on their health care plans is also disingenuous. Massachusetts could devise its health care law only because it had access to a large amount of federal money, a $385 million Medicaid grant that it needed to use to extend care to the poor. “He says the states could do it but not the federal government. Well, actually the states can’t do it” because they don’t have the money, says Gruber. “What he should be saying is that he ‘ll give the states a trillion dollars to come up with their own plans, but he’s not going to do that.”

Now some readers will say Romney and most of his supporters don’t give a damn about consistency, logic, or avoiding the appearance of being Absurd, and will just brazen it out. That may be true. But the thing about lying all the time about who you are, what you’ve done, and what you intend to do is that it frequently causes even the most disciplined dissembler to screw up or at least fail to make sense to voters with even minimal discernment. That’s the risk Romney is going to have to take nearly every time he opens his mouth over the next four months.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.