Mitt Romney is facing a barrage of conservative attacks after it was revealed late Friday that he wrote a July 2009 op-ed in USA Today calling on President Obama to adopt an individual mandate requiring Americans to buy health insurance, the provision that Republicans today despise and which Romney says he virulently opposes on a federal level.
In the piece, however, Romney urged Obama to “learn a thing or two” from his Massachusetts plan that contained the same mandate, and made the case for it. “First, we established incentives for those who were uninsured to buy insurance,” Romney wrote. “Using tax penalties, as we did, or tax credits, as others have proposed, encourages ‘free riders’ to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others.”
Among the first to take aim at Romney was his chief Republican 2012 rival Rick Santorum. “Governor Romney has been saying throughout the course of this campaign, ‘Oh, I never recommended that they adopt my program in Massachusetts for an individual federal mandate,’” Santorum told a crowd of several hundred people Saturday in Ohio. “Oh yes, he did. In a 2009 USA Today op-ed, he recommended, he made suggestions to President Obama, including the individual mandate and taxing people who don’t buy insurance. That is the individual mandate.”
Team Romney pushed back on Santorum’s charge.
“Rick Santorum has a habit of making distortions, exaggerations and falsehoods about Mitt Romney’s record,” Romney’s spokesperson Andrea Saul told TPM. “Governor Romney has never advocated for a federal individual mandate. He believes in the Tenth Amendment and, as a result, has always said that states should be free to come up with their own health care reforms.”
To be sure, Romney has stuck by the federal versus state distinction ever since the law was enacted in March 2010. And as his campaign points out, the USA Today op-ed makes clear the former governor opposed a public option and wanted the bill to be bipartisan. But conservatives aren’t buying the notion that he didn’t express support for a federal individual mandate in the op-ed.
“This seems very significant. A number of us have expressed concerns that Romney cannot effectively confront Obama on Obamacare,” wrote Andrew McCarthy at National Review. “The op-ed demonstrates that Mitt regarded Romneycare precisely as a model the federal government ought to adopt, and that the ‘tax penalties’ by which Massachusetts’s individual mandate are enforced were a good fit for Congress and the Obama administration to impose by federal law.”
On his blog RedState, CNN contributor Erick Erickson lamented that this could hurt the GOP’s odds of winning the White House. “Friends,” he wrote, “if Mitt Romney is the nominee, we will be unable to fight Obama on an issue that 60% of Americans agree with us on.”
Hot Air blogger Allahpundit was even more damning, casting the op-ed as evidence that Romney is an opportunist who lacks core convictions. “It’s shocking that, as late as summer 2009,” Allahpundit wrote, “he’d misread the mood of the base badly enough to think he could sell them on the right-wing merits of compulsory health-care purchases, but then that’s what makes him Mitt Romney. And the subsequent flip to the position that of course the mandate is unconstitutional — that’s what really makes him Mitt Romney.”
The issue of health care is one of Romney’s biggest vulnerabilities in the primary. Even though the individual mandate originated as a conservative idea, it has become a focal point of GOP ire. The federalist distinction was Romney’s saving grace against the Republican attacks, as there was little evidence of him championing a federal mandate — at least prior to revelation of the USA Today op-ed.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.