ROMNEY’S DISTINCTIONS WITHOUT A DIFFERENCE…. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is in a tough spot when it comes to health care reform. On the one hand, he seriously thinks he should be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2012, and needs as big a gap as possible between himself and President Obama.

On the other, Romney successfully passed health care reform in Massachusetts four years ago, and his plan is awfully similar to what the president is proposing now. If Republicans think they hate Obama’s plan, and Obama’s plan was Romney’s plan, they’re going to hate the crowning achievement of Romney’s limited, one-term political career.

So, Romney has a choice. He can a) find something else to criticize the president over; or b) pretend the proposals that are largely indistinguishable aren’t really that similar after all. Take a wild guess which direction Romney prefers.

Former Massachusetts governor and likely 2012 presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is insisting that the universal health care plan he championed in the Bay State has virtually nothing in common with the plan President Barack Obama is urging Congress to adopt.

“There a big difference between what we did and what [President Obama] is doing. What we did I think is the ultimate conservative plan,” Romney said on Fox News Sunday. In response to a polite but somewhat incredulous grilling by anchor Chris Wallace, the ex-governor and 2008 presidential candidate painted Obama’s plan as a takeover of the health care system and his plan as an effort to do make it impossible for people to consume health care resources as “free riders.”

Substantively, Romney is playing a terribly weak hand. Tim Noah explained the other day that Romney’s policy argument, trying to draw distinctions between the two plans, comes down to two points.

Obamacare includes a “public option” government insurance plan, which Romney judges to be “a transitional step toward the president’s stated goal of creating a single-payer system.” Such claims about the public option may or may not be true, but they are certainly irrelevant. There is no public option in Obama’s proposal. Lately, there’s been a push inside the Senate to tuck it back into the reconciliation bill, but given already-steep odds against getting health reform through the House (where the obstacle is conservative Democrats), that isn’t likely to happen.

Romney believes every state should pursue its own version of health care reform. “States could follow the Massachusetts model if they choose, or they could develop plans of their own,” he writes. “These plans, tested in the state ‘laboratories of democracy,’ could be evaluated, compared, improved upon, and adopted by others. But the creation of a national plan is the direction in which Washington currently is moving.” This disagreement isn’t stated with much vehemence; Romney calls a federalist approach “my own preference.” Anyway, the Senate bill already allows states to achieve health reform by other means provided they can demonstrate comparable results.

Other than this, the Romney and Obama plans enjoy very similar frameworks, whether Romney likes it or not. Indeed, Noah took quotes from the president’s recent speech on health care and excerpts from the chapter on health care from Romney’s new book, and challenged readers to match the rhetoric to the speaker. It’s surprisingly difficult — which only reinforces the similarities of the two approaches.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.