January 11, 2012

As Mitt Romney and the GOP’s merry band of private-equity foes take their delicious war over “good” vs. “bad” capitalism to South Carolina, don’t expect Romney’s triumphalist New Hampshire victory speech to shut his rivals down. With the slugfest heading south, the real shocker is that Romney’s chipper “I like being able to fire people” line — which will now become permanent background noise in our world, like the hum of the air conditioning — is actually much worse in context than it was when taken out.

Aficionados of this Romney gaffe know by now that Romney was referring to being able to “fire” health insurance companies that aren’t providing adequate care and coverage. But the terrible fraud in his explanation hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

“I don’t want to live in a world where we have Obamacare telling us which insurance we have to have, which doctor we can have, which hospital we go to,” Romney said in a rare news conference Monday afternoon to clarify his remarks. “I believe in the setting as I described this morning, where people are able to choose their own doctor, choose their own insurance company. If they don’t like their insurance company or their provider, they can get rid of it.”

On Tuesday he added: “I was talking about, as you know, insurance companies. We’d all like to get rid of our insurance companies — don’t want Obama to tell us we can’t.”

Romney’s dishonesty here is breathtaking. I used to think Republicans had taken chutzpah to unsurpassable new heights when they refused on principle to lift the debt ceiling last summer – despite having passed the Paul Ryan budget, which added more than $5 trillion in debt over the next decade.

But Romney may have topped that. He’s saying that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act — which offers people precisely the choice among competing private insurers that Romney’s own health-care reform did in Massachusetts — is instead some cartoon version of socialized medicine.

It’s a blatant falsehood. The Big Republican Lie.

Now, if Rick Perry had said this, you might say that the man just doesn’t know whereof he speaks. When Rush Limbaugh makes such bogus claims, you put it down to the ravings of an entertainer and propagandist. But Romney is a smart man. He’s also supposed to be a serious man, not a huckster. He knows better. Yet he’s made these outrageous false claims repeatedly. So this is a conscious, premeditated Big Lie.

What should we make of all this?

Let’s review. A candidate makes an obviously insensitive, unattractive remark that makes him sound like a callous, coldhearted boss, but the remark has been taken out of context. That “fire” sound bite will nonetheless become a staple of rivals’ ads and part of the Democratic onslaught if Romney is the nominee. (Look for it to be paired with Mike Huckabee’s perfect quip from 2008 that Romney “looks like the guy who fired you.”)

A fairminded citizen might feel a pang of sympathy for a politician who has to watch every word, lest it be taken out of context and turned against him. That’s why we get such robotic candidates and officials, after all.

But such sympathy dries up when it turns out that Romney’s actual meaning involves the Big Republican Lie on health care. When, in fact, Obama’s law offers exactly the same choices, via exactly the same kind of insurance exchanges, that Romney brought to Massachusetts.

Here’s another wrinkle. Romney’s passage of that health-care law – the one he’s mischaracterizing when he’s not busy running away from it – was a landmark achievement. He was the only governor who passed a bipartisan universal health-care bill. Facts are facts.

So what are we supposed to think of this man?

Here’s what we know. Romney will very casually tell the Big Lie if he thinks it will help him win. He’ll also work to enact universal health coverage if he thinks it’s a sensible path for his constituents and serves his own political ambitions once in office. Does this make him shameless and untrustworthy? A problem-solver? Both? Is belief in his own claim on power the only core conviction we can count on from Mitt Romney? Is any other presidential contender — or president — any different?

Just some questions to mull as you microwave the popcorn and settle down to watch the 30-minute video on Romney’s time at Bain in the days ahead. In the meantime, if the dictionary defines “misfire” as “to fail to ignite when expected,” and “spitfire” means “a quick tempered or highly emotional person,” I’m betting that by the time South Carolina votes, we’ll be looking at a “Mittfire” — a candidate whose loose talk on firing means he hasn’t wrapped things up when he’d hoped and who’s hopping mad about it. There’s a twist or turn left in the Grand Old Party yet.

Matt Miller, a co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly online column for The Post. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.