If the Mitt Fits
Romano, Andrew, Newsweek
Byline: Andrew Romano
Mitt Romney may be more responsible for national health-care reform than the president himself. Why he ought to take credit for it.
Jon Gruber is not the kind of guy who votes Republican for president. He is, after all, a liberal professor from Massachusetts. But at one point he was ready to make an exception for Mitt Romney. Back in 2004, Romney, then governor of the Bay State, summoned Gruber from MIT to his office on Beacon Hill. A leading health-care economist, Gruber had spent the previous few years modeling an insurance system that was neither liberal (like single-payer) nor conservative (like total deregulation), but somewhere in between. Romney, craving a signature policy achievement, was eager to hear more.
Gruber described the details: a marketplace where Massachusettans could shop for private coverage; subsidies to help poorer residents purchase insurance; a requirement that everyone contribute as much as they could afford. Best of all, he explained, there was no need to raise taxes or reduce services; just stop wasting $400 million a year on expensive ER visits for the uninsured and the reforms would pretty much pay for themselves. Romney was sold. "As a management consultant, his eyes lit up," recalls Gruber. "He just said, 'It's the right thing to do.'a"
Thinking back, Gruber can't help but gush. "I'm a Dem through and through, but Romney really knocked my socks off," he says. "I thought, here's a guy who knows how to get things done."
Now, six years later, Romney and Gruber no longer see eye to eye. With Republicans whipping themselves into an apocalyptic frenzy over President Obama's newly minted health overhaul --which happens to be a close replica of the Massachusetts model--Romney has morphed into the law's harshest critic, calling Obamacare "an unconscionable abuse of power" and vowing to lead a nationwide campaign to repeal it. Gruber, for his part, will never again consider voting for Romney. "He's the one person who deserves the most credit for the national plan we ended up with," says the economist, who has also advised Obama on health care. "And yet he's railing against it. Does the guy believe in anything?" The media, meanwhile, are gleefully writing Romney's political obituary, claiming that the similarities between Obamacare and Romneycare will alienate Republican primary voters --and that Romney's convoluted efforts to pretend the plans don't share some DNA will alienate everyone else.
But should Romneycare really be the end of Romney? It's true that the governor has an irritating tendency to rebrand himself for each new campaign. But on health care, he was an innovator when it mattered most, shepherding a plan with clear conservative roots through a liberal legislature and showing the rest of the nation how to fix its broken insurance system in the process. Our political culture may be too polarized to see Romney's resume in anything but electoral terms, and Romney himself may be too much a part of that culture. But this doesn't change the fundamental fact that Romneycare was a groundbreaking accomplishment. Unless we value gridlock, solving big problems is something that should qualify people for the presidency, not disqualify them.
In fact, Romneycare is exactly the kind of plan a GOP candidate should be able to run on in 2012: a center-right idea that is proven to work. Consider the policy's intellectual history. Today, Republicans claim that individual mandates are unconstitutional. But the first president to embrace the concept was a Republican: Richard Nixon. By the late 1980s, a pair of conservative health-care economists, Mark Pauly and Stuart Butler, were pushing GOP leaders to combat the Democratic Party's single-payer proposals with a package of market reforms centered on insurance exchanges, mandates, and subsidies. …