Priorities USA Action has released a widely discussed ad that implies Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital is to blame for the death of a laid off steelworker’s wife. I think the ad goes too far, given the following factors: Joe Soptic’s wife died five years after his plant closed. She had her own health insurance — for a time — after he lost his job. It’s true that people without health insurance are less likely to survive cancer. But the circumstances of her illness are so unclear — even in Mr. Soptic’s own telling — that there’s simply no way to determine whether she would or wouldn’t have died if he hadn’t been fired.
The ad doesn’t quite say outright that Romney is to blame for her death. It’s meant to dramatize that decisions like the one made by Bain have long term consequences and devastate real people and communities. But the ad could have been a bit more specific in recounting what happened with her illness — and it does imply that she died partly because of Bain, which, again, is unsupportable at best.
Today, however, the Romney camp responded to the ad in a way that makes this whole dust-up an important clarifying moment. Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul suggested today that Soptic’s wife would have had health insurance if she had lived in Massachusetts and had been covered by Romneycare. “If people had been in Massachusetts, under Gov. Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care,” Saul said.
Conservatives are apoplectic. They think this has given the Obama team a big opening to remake its case about Obamacare. And they’re right. The Romney campaign now seems to be claiming that government-established universal health care is the answer to what to do about people like Ms. Soptic who lack insurance. That’s Obama’s argument for Obamacare. The Romney campaign will argue that they only favor state-based insurance mandates to achieve universal coverage. That’s true. But this debate is occuring in the context of a presidential race. Something approaching universal health care is now the law of the land. But as president, Romney would take it away from people like the Soptics, without saying with any specificity what he would replace it with.
The larger story here is this: Even if this ad makes unsupportable charges — and even if you think there’s nothing objectionable about Bain’s conduct — the ad dramatizes a larger story about what has happened to the middle class in this country. There is a straightforward difference of opinion between the two candidates over how to respond to this — over the degree to which the federal government should intervene to protect people like Ms. Soptic. Obama believes in aggressive federal action to cushion the blow of market outcomes like the one that hit families like the Soptics with such force. Romney — even though his campaign has now said universal health care is the right answer in cases like hers — is promising to roll back government protections for families like theirs. Whatever you think of the ad, that's the more important larger argument to be having here — and it has been clarified this week.
UPDATE: Post edited slightly for clarity.