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Derrick Z. Jackson

Brown and Romney twist in the conservative winds

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / March 1, 2011

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SCOTT BROWN and Mitt Romney are becoming a measuring stick for how extreme the Republican Party has become. Both have had to contort their relatively moderate positions in Massachusetts in order to placate conservatives nationally.

Romney found himself in a particular squeeze this week when Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, said “one of the best things’’ Romney did as governor was to co-author the state’s health care reform, which gave or offered most residents some form of health insurance. Romney, again a presidential hopeful, has yet to square his efforts as a governor with his condemnation of last year’s federal health care overhaul, modeled significantly on his own.

Adrift in ambivalence, he is being attacked by his own party. Former Arkansas governor and presidential rival Mike Huckabee is deriding Massachusetts health care as “RomneyCare’’ and “socialized medicine.’’ The negative Republican battle cry of socialized medicine, which goes back to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush’s presidential victory over Massachusetts’ Mike Dukakis, is one of the most successful broken records played in modern political history, keeping America’s health care system broken.

The record is mindlessly played today by virtually every major Republican leader, from House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to Tea Party darlings Rand Paul and Michelle Bachmann as they try to dismantle the reforms the Obama administration was able to enact. It almost makes you forget that when the Romney administration forged health care reform in Massachusetts with a mostly Democratic legislature, there was bipartisan praise.

Kennedy showed up for the 2006 signing. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton of New York said, “To come up with a bipartisan plan in this polarized environment is commendable.’’ Then-Senator Barack Obama of Illinois cited “Massachusetts, where a Republican governor called for mandatory insurance and pooling to reduce costs and expand coverage. If we take those big approaches, then I think we can make a difference.’’

But instead of being proud of accomplishments across the aisle that made a difference, Romney is trying to crawl into the same rhetorical hole with the Republicans. He recently compared the Democrats to Europeans who “took over health care.’’

Brown is quirkier still. He supported Romney’s health insurance efforts in Massachusetts, but after he was elected to the Senate, Republican Utah Senator Orrin Hatch proclaimed Brown’s victory to be “a very clear referendum on the Democrats’ health care bill.’’

A year later, despite his occasional bipartisanship, Brown has joined the Republican forces trying to either repeal the whole health care bill or dismantle it piece by piece. In a recent television interview, he declared, “Repeal it, replace it, fix it, or do something. We can’t keep it as is.’’

Brown is also in the conservative chorus that is threatening a government shutdown if it does not get even more budget cuts than those proposed by Obama. But it’s not enough for some Republicans, and he has generated audible grumbles from Tea Party members and other hardline conservatives by voting periodically with the Democrats on job bills, arms treaties, and supporting the end of the ban on openly gay and lesbian soldiers.

In a speech last week at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, Brown appeared to position himself as a sensible Republican, saying he keeps a picture of Kennedy in his office as a reminder “to work with good people whenever I find them.’’ He also said on MSNBC last week, “when you talk about being an ideologue, if you’re looking for one, I’m not it.’’

It would be nice if Brown and Romney actually stopped letting the less sensible elements of the Republican Party twist them into such contortions. They have been part of important good ideas, such as health care, and they should stand up for them against the railing of the ideologues.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.