When being vague backfires

September 10, 2012

Mitt Romney had a kind of a strange weekend. He went on NBC's "Meet the Press" and articulated pretty much the same position he's always had on Obamacare. He got off "Meet the Press" and found himself in the middle of a firestorm over why he'd changed his position on Obamacare.

The problem for Romney is that he's been trying to articulate a position on this issue that's too clever by much more than half.


Steve Senne -- Associated Press

Among the most popular parts of President Obama's health reforms is the protection for people with preexisting conditions. So Romney wants to keep that bit. The problem with keeping that bit, as Romney knows full well, is that if you don't let insurers turn away people with preexisting conditions, you need some way to keep healthy people from only buying insurance once they get sick. That means you need an individual mandate, or something like it. And if you're going to have some sort of mandate-like policy, you need subsidies to help people afford the insurance the government is now pushing them to buy. And so, soon enough, you've got Obamacare -- or, as it was known in Massachusetts, Romneycare. And Romney opposes Romneycare/Obamacare.

So Romney has been playing a little trick. Here's what he told David Gregory:

There are a number of things that I like in health-care reform that I'm going to put in place. One is to make sure that those with preexisting conditions can get coverage.

To most of the world, that sounded like Romney was saying he was going to keep Obamacare's protections for people with preexisting conditions. And enough reporters know Obamacare well enough to know that you can't keep those protections without keeping quite a bit of the law. That's why people thought Romney's position had changed.

But to folks who've been following Romney's game of three-card monte on this issue, it was clear he was just being strategically vague in describing his position: Romney has long said he would protect people with continuous coverage from being discriminated against due to preexisting conditions. But this is something that the law mostly does now, and that would leave 89 million Americans out in the cold.

Romney's play here was obvious enough: By being a little fuzzy about what, exactly, he was proposing, he could sound like he had a way to protect people with preexisting conditions while still saying he wants to repeal Obamacare. He'd get the best of both worlds. But the problem with trying to strategically confuse people is that you actually confuse them, and that's what happened here. Rather than coming away thinking Romney had a secret plan to protect people with preexisting conditions, they went away thinking Romney had a secret plan to protect Obamacare.

That's happening to Romney a lot lately. On taxes, for instance, he's said that his plan won't cost any money, that it won't cut the tax burden on the rich, but that it will nevertheless be a huge cut in tax rates. When asked how he'd do all that, he's said he'll explain later.

The theory, again, was clear: Romney wanted credit for deficit reduction and for tax cuts, and he didn't want to be seen helping out the rich. But as people got more and more confused as to how the numbers would add up, and then as independent analyses made clear they didn't add up, Romney ended up taking fire for cutting taxes on the rich, blowing up the deficit, and refusing to release details. Rather than cleverly allowing him to reap the rewards on all sides of the tax issue, his vagueness has left him taking fire on all sides of it.

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Dylan Matthews | September 10, 2012