THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Scott Lehigh

GOP’s lost love affair: RomneyCare

By Scott Lehigh
June 3, 2011

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STRATHAM, N.H.
IN ANNOUNCING his second run for the presidency yesterday, Mitt Romney invoked the heroes of the American Revolution.

But despite a healthy crowd and a reasonably good speech, the figure Romney himself called to mind was Rip Van Winkle, the literary character who slept through that epic conflict.

In Washington Irving’s story, Rip returns from his two-decade doze to find that his affection for King George now earns him only derision. Mitt hasn’t been napping, but a similar change in sentiment has rendered his biggest gubernatorial accomplishment an object of conservative contempt.

That accomplishment, of course, is health care reform, and more specifically, the individual mandate that is the core of both RomneyCare and ObamaCare. So anathema has it become that Romney mentioned his law only to underscore that it had been “a state solution to our state’s problem’’ — while blasting President Obama for “ram[ming] through a disastrous national health care plan.’’

Back when Romney settled on his plan, the individual mandate, with its emphasis on personal responsibility, was a distinctly conservative idea. As part of a mid-1990s GOP proposal, it had been backed by Bob Dole, Orrin Hatch, Charles Grassley, and 16 other GOP senators.

In Massachusetts, it was liberals, not conservatives, who were most wary.

“When Romney put it forward, we were much more worried about the left flank than Romney was about his right flank,’’ says John McDonough, a former Democrat legislator who, as head of the advocacy group Health Care for All, favored hiking businesses taxes to finance coverage for their uncovered workers.

On the starboard flank, the Heritage Foundation seemed to have Romney’s back. The influential conservative think tank had, after all, helped popularize that approach — though today Heritage downplays its role. “There was this four-year flirtation with a mandate,’’ from about 1989 to 1993, “and then it was largely abandoned’’ by Heritage, says Todd Gaziano, director of Heritage’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

Hmmm. Several Heritage health care experts defended the approach during the Bay State debate in 2005 and 2006. When Romney signed the bill in April of 2006, one of them, Robert Moffit, spoke at the ceremony. (This week, Moffit told me he attended because he supported the insurance exchange.) After the law was signed, Ed Haislmaier, the other Heritage expert, promoted it as a model for other states.

You could also find some praise for Romney’s plan in conservative journals. Further, two of the serious declared or likely candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination were favorably disposed.

“We’ll be looking like we do in automobile insurance to require people who have the resources and the means to have insurance,’’ then Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said in May 2006. “I’m comfortable with a [health insurance] requirement,’’ then Utah Governor Jon Huntsman said in September 2007, noting that taxpayers were otherwise often saddled with the cost of emergency room care for the uninsured.

So what happened? Well, some conservatives obviously decided that even if an idea has conservative roots, it becomes toxic if adopted by a liberal, as the individual mandate was by President Obama. After all, how can you endorse RomneyCare as a thoughtful conservative experiment with personal responsibility while condemning ObamaCare as intolerable socialistic takeover of health care?

With others, an about-face marked the path of least political resistance. With the Tea Partiers in a froth, individual-mandate fans had a choice: defend it in the face of conservative grass-roots outrage or back away. Away they backed.

Not Romney, however. Mind you, that’s not to suggest Mitt is a modern Henry Winstanley, the English engineer who was so sure of the lighthouse he’d built on the low-lying Eddystone Rocks off Plymouth that he declared he’d be confident in his creation during “the greatest storm that ever was’’ — only to find his faith tragically misplaced when the Great Storm of 1703 swept away the structure with him inside.

Romney has tried to limit his exposure to the political tempest, disavowing the individual mandate as a national approach, and promising (again) yesterday “a complete repeal of ObamaCare.’’ And yet, in refusing to pander to conservative demands that he renounce the Massachusetts law as a mistake, he’s also shown some backbone.

Isn’t that what voters always claim they want in a candidate?

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.