Parsing Romney on health care

September 24, 2011

Here’s the back story to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s reference in Thursday’s GOP debate in Orlando to an interview I did with him about health care.

This was the second time in a week Romney had mentioned our interview. When he first talked about it, I dug out the recording from my files and reviewed it. Romney is accurate in his recollection about what he said, but is not correct that the interview took place as he was putting the Massachusetts health-care plan together. Whether that is material, I can’t say.

On June 6, 2007, Chris (The Fix) Cillizza and I sat down with Romney in Manchester, N.H., to record an interview that was part of a video series we were doing with presidential candidates for our Web site. The interview took place a day after CNN hosted a Republican debate.

In that debate, Romney had been asked about his health-care plan by moderator Wolf Blitzer and gave a robust defense of the Massachusetts plan. Toward the end of our interview, I pointed to what he had said and noted that he had not indicated any desire to use Massachusetts as the basis for a national solution to the problems with the country’s health care system and wondered why.

He responded this way: “I like letting the states be the laboratories of democracy and each develop their own plan to deal with their uninsured and their underinsured as we did and have the federal government provide the flexibility in the funding that they normally provide the states to encourage that kind of, if you will, experimentation. Somebody’s going to get it better than Massachusetts most likely. Maybe not. Maybe we were the best. But I think with time you’re going to see governors trying different models.”

He said that about 20 states were then pursuing health insurance reforms and specifically cited California. But he was adamant in resisting a solution from Washington. “Instead of having the federal government give us one-size-fits-all, everybody-must-follow-the-same-plan, let states develop their own,” he said.

I pointed out that, as a candidate for the Senate in 1994, he had advocated a national welfare reform plan, at a time when states were experimenting, and that he later had indicated support for President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education program, which included national standards. “Why the difference on health care?” I asked.

“Not really a difference,” he said. “I’d be happy to say that we would like states to develop a plans to get their citizens insured and we’ll provide flexibility and funding for states that do make progress . . .” But he added, “I haven’t got a plan I’m going to impose on all the states.”

Would he require states to have plans to cover everyone, I asked. “I don’t think you require states to do that at this stage. Let states pursue this on their own.”

It’s important to remember that this interview took place when Romney was fighting to establish his conservative bona fides as a presidential candidate. All the Democratic candidates were promoting national health-care reform and Romney was determined to keep his distance, despite the similarities between what he had done in Massachusetts and what some of the Democrats were talking about.

I cannot speak to what Romney thought at the time he was putting the Massachusetts plan together, which is when he recalls that our interview took place. By the time he signed it into law, he certainly viewed the plan as a model for other states, and no doubt believed that it could be an asset in any possible presidential campaign.

Even then, however, his reluctance to suggest that Washington should adopt the Massachusetts model was evident. By the time we talked in June 2007, he knew that what he had done was a mixed blessing politically in his battle for the nomination. He knows that even more so today.

His rivals point to changes between the hardback and paperback editions of his book, “No Apology,” as evidence that he once thought his state plan could be a blueprint for a national plan. He denies that, but the issue continues to dog him as he pursues the GOP nomination.

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Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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