“Mitt Romney — against individual mandates except when he’s for them.”

— New DNC Web ad attacking Romney

Many Democratic attacks on Mitt Romney suggest that he is a politician without conviction, and someone who will “say anything” to get elected. A new Democratic National Committee Web ad follows that pattern, highlighting a series of TV clips that aim at a perceived vulnerability of the former Massachusetts governor: his successful effort to create universal health care in his state.

President Obama’s health-care law was largely built around the concept of an individual mandate, as was Romney’s law. Romney, however, has insisted that he never intended to take the concept nationwide, but that each state could decide for itself how best to promote universal coverage.

This ad uses the clips — some of which we had not seen before — to suggest that Romney actually did support a national mandate, even when he now says he is against it. But how accurate is this claim?

The Facts

Readers should be wary of campaign ads that show many little clips, because a line or two can be taken out of context. One of the first things we do when fact-checking an ad like this is to look at the entire TV interview or debate segment, to understand why the comment in question was made.

In the DNC ad, a key moment is when text declares, “Romney supported the individual mandate. . . and for the whole country.” Then it cuts to a 2008 GOP debate in which moderator Charlie Gibson starts to ask, “Although you’ve backed away from mandates on a national basis . . .” and then Romney interjects: “No, no, I like mandates.”

Looks like a gotcha moment, right? Wrong.

Romney wasn’t really answering the question about mandates on a national level. In fact, a few minutes later, Gibson comes back to the question: “But let me just come to one point. Yes or no? In your national plan, would you mandate people to get insurance?”

Romney’s response:

“I would not mandate at the federal level that every state do what we do, but what I would say at the federal level is we’ll keep giving you these special payments we make if you adopt plans that get everybody insured. I want to get everybody insured. In Governor Schwarzenegger’s state, he’s got a different plan to get people insured. I wouldn’t tell him he has to do it my way, but I’d say each state needs to get busy on the job of getting all our citizens insured. It does not cost more money.”

In other words, the first comment was taken out of context. Below is a video of that segment of the debate so readers can see for themselves. The key quote comes at about the 2:45-minute mark.

Romney’s full response, in fact, was consistent with his position throughout his unsuccessful run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination — that he would not impose a federal mandate. He made this policy clear in a 2007 speech to the Florida Medical Association, which was his most comprehensive and definitive statement on health care during that campaign. That makes it a more important guide to his thinking than a snippet or two from a TV interview or debate.

In the speech, Romney said it made more sense to have a state-by-state approach, because the 50 states have such huge differences in the price for insurance policies and the percentage of people without insurance.

As Romney put it:

“We let states decide how they craft their own program. States are able to craft programs to match their unique needs and of course we let states remain as the laboratories of innovation. And by the way, I like the plan we came up with in Massachusetts. I wouldn’t be surprised if other states say, ‘I like that way, I’m going to copy it’ and I’d be proud if they did. Some states will find they’ve got better answers than what we came up with and if they do, hats off to them. We’ll all copy them but I like with what we came up with but I will let other states make their own choice and let them decide whether our plan is right for them or whether they’ve got better ideas.”

Here is how The New York Times headlined Romney’s approach at the time: “Romney to Pitch a State-by-State Health Insurance Plan.” The article said the state-by-state approach “departs significantly from the universal health care measure that he helped forge as governor of Massachusetts.”

For interested readers, we have embedded the full speech below:

Moreover, Romney’s campaign literature in 2008 also made clear that he wanted a “federalist” approach to universal health care. (Look at the section starting on page 42.)

In other words, it is ridiculous to claim that Romney ever supported a national mandate when he ran for president in 2008.

Some have noted that, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2007, Romney said that after states had tried various experiments, “those who follow the path that we pursued will find it’s the best path, and we’ll end up with a nation that’s taken a mandate approach.” But that is expressing an opinion, not supporting a national mandate.

Moreover, on the same program, he reiterated: “I like what we did in Massachusetts. I think it’s a great plan. But I’m a federalist. I don’t believe in applying what works in one state to all states if different states have different circumstances.”

The other key part of the Web ad shows Romney, during an appearance on “Meet the Press” in 2009, appearing to express support for an alternative health-care plan known as Wyden-Bennett: “We have a health-care plan. You look at Wyden-Bennett. That’s a health-care plan that a number of Republicans think is a very good health-care plan — one that we support.”

The ad then cuts to a clip of then-Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) explaining that his health-care plan, crafted with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), includes an individual mandate.

Gotcha? Nope.

Once again, the DNC takes a comment completely out of context. Romney was not endorsing Wyden-Bennett at all. He was responding to earlier comments on the program by Obama aide David Axelrod, who had declared that the GOP had no “fresh ideas.”

Here are Romney’s full comments, with the snippet used by the DNC indicated in bold:

“What I’m laying the foundation for is picking up seats in 2010. We’ve got some governor’s races in ’09 in Virginia and in New Jersey. We’ve got a whole series, of course, of Senate and House races and governors’ races in ’10. It’s important for us to have a stronger message as we go forward, and I think the party does have to stand up and be able to say, ‘Listen, Mr. Axelrod, you’re wrong when you say we don’t have ideas. We have a health-care plan. You look at Wyden-Bennett. That’s a health-care plan that a number of Republicans think is a very good health-care plan — one that we support. Take a look at that one.’ We believe in allowing people to have choice in their health care. We believe in allowing people to have choice in schools, it’s another one of our elements. We believe that with regard to energy that putting a massive tax on the American public and on industry is not going to create jobs, it’s going to hurt jobs. But here is an idea we have — something like a tax swap that Charles Krauthammer and Greg Mankiw have talked about. These are ways that are more effective than this cap-and-trade proposition. We’ve got ideas, we’ve got a mission that will allow America to be stronger and families to have a more prosperous future.”

In other words, the DNC has taken words that Romney says other Republicans should use as an argument, pretending that he is stating them as his own opinion. But Romney is not specifically endorsing Wyden-Bennett, except to note that it is one GOP-backed alternative — a “fresh idea” — to Obama’s law.

The recent “rediscovery” of a 2009 Romney op-ed for USA Today, touting the Massachusetts experience, really does not change this picture. The op-ed appears to have been written mainly to push Obama to take a bipartisan approach to health care. Romney touts what he considers the success of the Massachusetts legislation, written with Democrats, again mainly to rebut the notion that Republicans don’t have health-care solutions.

“Republicans are not the party of ‘no’ when it comes to health care reform,” Romney wrote. “This Republican is proud to be the first governor to insure all his state’s citizens.” He says Obama could learn from the Massachusetts experience, but nowhere in the op-ed does he support an individual mandate for the nation.

(The DNC’s back-up material for the ad also includes a 1994 quote from then-Senate candidate Romney saying he would support a health-care plan sponsored by then-Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican, which included an individual mandate. He seems to have offered the Chafee bill as an example of how he would work to achieve things in the Senate, as opposed to being an obstructionist. “I’m willing to vote for things I am not wild with,” Romney said. The DNC is being pretty silly if it thinks this 18-year-old quote proves anything.)

In response to our analysis, DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said: “When we were debating a national health-care law he touted his plan, which has a mandate, and he said he supported Wyden-Bennett which had a mandate, plus he supported as a Senate candidate the alternative to Hillarycare which had a mandate. He has supported bills with mandates and is not telling the truth about it now.”

The Pinocchio Test

As we have written, Romney certainly has shifted his position on some key issues. And we understand that the DNC is straining mightily to portray Romney as two-faced on an issue where Obama continues to be somewhat vulnerable: the health-care law.

But the DNC falls short. Romney has been consistent in saying that he would apply a state-based approach to health care. He has said the individual mandate worked well for Massachusetts, he may have even predicted that most other states would eventually adopt it, but he has never advocated or supported a federal mandate — as contained in the president’s law.

This alone would earn the DNC at least three Pinocchios, but we were also disturbed by the manipulative editing in this ad. There is no excuse for the DNC to simply ignore, in the same 2008 debate, Romney’s firm reaffirmation that he preferred a federalist approach.

In a strange irony, Obama opposed an individual mandate for health care when he ran for president, only to change his mind once he entered the White House. He even ran ads against an individual mandate (see below). Given those circumstances, one can certainly make the case that Romney had been much more consistent over the years on this issue than Obama.

Four Pinocchios

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Obama’s 2008 ad against a health care mandate

UPDATE: For another perspective, read New York magazine’s different take on Romney’s health-care statements, written in response to this column. The article does not defend the DNC ad but argues that Romney’s statements on an individual mandate have been inconsistent.