Mitt Romney drew new fire from his conservative allies on a familiar topic Wednesday — health-care reform — as his spokeswoman offered unusual praise for his efforts on the issue as Massachusetts governor.
In an interview with Fox News Channel on Wednesday, Andrea Saul invoked Massachusetts’s expansion of health coverage as a defense to a harsh new ad funded by a super PAC supporting President Obama. In the spot, a former steelworker whose plant was closed by Bain Capital blames Romney, who co-founded the firm, for his family’s loss of health insurance and his wife’s subsequent death from cancer.
“To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health-care plan, they would have had health care,” Saul said in the interview. “There are a lot of people losing their jobs and losing their health care in President Obama’s economy.”
The comments were unusual for a campaign that has typically steered clear of the 2006 Massachusetts overhaul, sensitive to conservatives’ concerns that the program too closely mimics the Democratic health-care law they are determined to undo.
At an event in Iowa on Wednesday, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee offered his Massachusetts experience to show that he is an expert on health-care reform.
“We’ve got to do some reforms in health care, and I have some experience doing that, as you know,” he told a crowd, after receiving a standing ovation for repeating his promise to repeal Obama’s law.
Romney has always maintained that although his reform efforts worked for Massachusetts, the federal government should not force a similar solution on the nation.
He has said that on his first day as president, he would sign an executive order offering states a waiver to opt out of the law and would sign any repeal legislation passed by Congress.
Although he has never disavowed the Massachusetts effort, he has often appeared hesitant to discuss the program, which drew harsh criticism from his Republican rivals during the presidential primaries. The Massachusetts and federal programs both include a core requirement that participants buy medical insurance or pay a fee.
Early in the primary contest, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty chided that the two programs were so similar, they could be called “Obamneycare.” Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) once said that Romney’s efforts in Massachusetts made him the worst possible Republican to face Obama.
Along those lines, the twin moments of praise Wednesday for the Massachusetts program elicited immediate howls of protest from conservatives. After all, they said, if Romney believes that expanding health coverage through a government program was a positive development for Massachusetts residents, couldn’t Democrats argue that other Americans should receive similar protections?
“Andrea Saul’s appearance on Fox was a potential gold mine for Obama supporters,” conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said Wednesday. “They can say, ‘Romneycare was the basis for our health care.’ ”
Conservative commentator Erick Erickson called Saul’s remark an “an unforced error of monumental idiocy” that revived conservative wariness of Romney.
“Consider the scab picked, the wound opened and the distrust trickling out again,” he wrote on RedState.com.
In the Priorities USA super PAC ad to which Saul was responding, Joe Soptic, a former employee at GST Steel in Kansas City, Mo., says he no longer had health insurance after losing his job at the company. Without coverage, Soptic’s wife, Ilyona “Ranae” Soptic, died of cancer. But the ad does not note that Romney had left Bain by the time GST Steel declared bankruptcy in 2001. And Soptic’s wife died in 2006, five years after the plant closed.
“This ad just shows the depths to which President Obama and his allies will go to smear Mitt Romney,” Saul said in the Fox interview.
The Romney team has called on the Obama campaign to disavow the ad by the independent group. On Wednesday, it cried foul when several Obama campaign aides said they were unfamiliar with Joe Soptic’s history, even though the former steelworker had told his story during an Obama conference call in May.
Some conservatives on Wednesday said praise for the Massachusetts program did little to blunt their confidence that Romney would work to end the federal program if elected.
“The key policy here is overturning the president’s health-care legislation. And on that, Governor Romney has been crystal clear,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a tea-party-affiliated group that has led protests against the law.
Independent pollster Brad Corker said it might be risky but astute for Romney to find new ways to cast his Massachusetts health-care experience, once considered the signature achievement of his time in office.
Conservatives, he argued, dislike Obama’s approach so deeply that they are unlikely to stay home on Election Day.
But independent voters might be impressed to hear that Romney has given serious thought to addressing flaws in the health-care system beyond criticizing Obama.
“It would help blunt the ‘Romney wants to take away your health care’ argument,” he said.