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Brian McGrory

A Romney we can respect

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / May 18, 2011

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Old friend Mitt Romney understands that if the occasion should ever arise, he’s not actually allowed to use a PowerPoint presentation during a presidential inaugural address — right? Mitt, right?

After his performance in Michigan last week, you’ve got to wonder what form his marriage proposal took to Ann. “Listen, Sweetie, as you can see from the bar chart on this next slide, the genetic risk of me ever losing my hair is incalculably low.’’

Romney’s use of a projector and overhead screen at least week’s health care speech — billed as the most important event of his young campaign — was not the biggest surprise. That’s becoming par for an increasingly unorthodox course. It wasn’t even the fact that he kept referring to Massachusetts as “my state’’ after belittling us for years. Mitt, all is forgiven; welcome home, friend.

No, the biggest shock by far was the content of his speech. Mitt Romney actually planted a flag in the middle of a controversial issue and defended it. He stood up for something he had already done. It might have been the most un-Mitt of moments since he apparently sold off his entire collection of silk neckties.

In terms of background, Romney has been under fire for his role in the passage of the state’s 2006 health care overhaul, the landmark law that has dramatically reduced the number of uninsured people in Massachusetts, stayed within cost projections, led to a steep drop in so-called free care, and is widely popular here. Besides that, it’s been a disaster.

Every conservative across this grand nation has demanded an apology from Romney for the utter lunacy of successful health care reform. The poor fops at the Wall Street Journal editorial page breathlessly dubbed him “Obama’s Running Mate.’’ All this seems to be based on the fact that the law mandates that people either have health insurance (which can be state subsidized) or pay a penalty.

Maybe I missed something here, but isn’t personal responsibility something that Republicans generally support? The alternative, mind you, is that people who either don’t bother paying for insurance or can’t afford it clog emergency rooms — the most expensive entry point to the health care system — to receive care that’s spread among taxpayers who have already paid for insurance on their own. That’s really what Republicans support?

So to the point, Romney stood up and stood tall last week and defended the Massachusetts law, with the caveat that it was never meant to be a national plan. The authority to tackle health care, Romney said, resides with the states, and what fits well in Massachusetts may not be the best solution in Montana or Mississippi. This is reasonable and practical.

Meaning that conservative commentators just about broke their legs rushing to their keyboards and cameras to tear the speech apart. “Mitt Romney’s Illogical, Terrible Health Care Address,’’ was how the National Review termed it. And that was one of the kinder takes.

Think about this for a brief moment: The first time Romney has refused to disavow the past or contort himself in a way that defies the physics of successful politics, he is slammed by his own party for daring to be true to a belief. But in that, amid the waterfall of negativity that has rained on his camp ever since, Romney may find the exact message he needs in his eternally uncertain campaign.

The fringe philosophers of each party get the most attention by throwing juvenile tantrums, but it’s the adults in the center who end up handling the arduous work of government and, occasionally, reform. The public gets this. For the moment, anyway, voters are done with radicals with all the answers. They want honest brokers.

There may be plenty of reasons why Mitt Romney shouldn’t be president, but his role and views on health care reform aren’t among them.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.