David L. Ryan, Globe Staff
Northeast Democrats will be at their most creative today and tomorrow, as they aim to tweak Republican Mitt Romney in conjunction with the fifth anniversary of the Massachusetts universal health care law.
New Hampshire Democrats are sending out an email at 9 a.m. today, urging their supporters to flood Romney's official Twitter handle, @MittRomney, with thanks and congratulations for a piece of legislation that is anathema to many of his fellow conservatives across the country.
The 2006 Massachusetts law, signed while Romney was governor of the state, became the model for the 2010 federal universal health care law signed by President Obama, the Democrat he hopes to face in next year's presidential race.
Tomorrow, Democratic Party officials in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the lead presidential primary state, also plan to hold "parties" to celebrate Romney's involvement with the Bay State achievement. They will offer cards and speeches lauding the former governor, and serve up a pair of sheetcakes as a confectionary exclamation point.
In addition, there's sure to be mention of Romney at non-party events today in Boston and Wednesday in Washington as local and national organizations commemorate the anniversary. Governor Deval Patrick will attend both events in his official capacity as leader of Massachusetts, as well as his unofficial capacity as one of the leading surrogate campaigners for Obama's reelection campaign.
During a recent news conference, Patrick offered Romney feint praise, saying: ďIf I were Governor Romney and Iím not Governor Romney I would wrap my arms around that success, because that has been good for the people of the commonwealth.íí
Yet as amusing as all this is as a pre-primary or presidential primary campaign strategy, it has the very real possibility of backfiring on Democrats should Romney advance to a general election match-up against Obama.
And therein lies the reason Romney may want to celebrate himself tomorrow.
With their statements and stagecraft, Democrats are acknowledging that perhaps Obama's proudest first-term accomplishment signing the universal health law copies something Romney did four years earlier.
And while the results of the federal program are still unknown, the achievements in Massachusetts are now tangible. Chief among them: some 98 percent of all state residents have health insurance, either from private employers or the government. That's up from 94 percent when Romney signed the law, aiming to cut back on so-called "free riders" who eschewed insurance they could afford for free care in the emergency room.
In addition, the Massachusetts law was enacted largely on Romney's terms not those of the Democrats, as I previously noted in an analysis for The Associated Press.
When Romney made his first bid for elective office, a 1994 US Senate campaign against the patriarch of universal health care, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, they had a fierce exchange about insurance during their first debate.
During the Oct. 25, 1994, meeting, Kennedy criticized Romney because Staples Inc., the office supply store that Romney's venture capital firm helped start, did not offer health insurance to part-time workers.
"If ... Jordan Marsh and Filene's and Stop & Shop provide health insurance for their part-time workers, what's wrong with Mr. Romney's companies providing the same thing?" the senator asked.
Romney countered the charge was "the height of hypocrisy," since the Chicago Merchandise Mart, a real estate holding that was source of some of the Kennedy family's immense wealth, did not provide health insurance to its part-time employees.
When Kennedy tried to explain that some workers were covered, Romney shouted, "Senator, I don't know what you're talking about."
Afterward, the Kennedy campaign conceded seven part-time workers did not have health insurance, although the company provided it to 400 full-time workers.
The differences between Kennedy and Romney on the subject of universal health care were summarized in a newspaper recap at the time.
Kennedy, it said, "favors Clinton health care reform plan and is committed to universal coverage. Wants employers to provide coverage for their employees and to pay part of the costs."
Romney, by contrast, "opposes requiring employers to contribute to cost of health care plans for their employees. Prefers providing subsidies for health coverage for low-income individuals and providing tax incentives to individuals ... for the purchase of health care."
In 2006, when the Massachusetts House and Senate finally compromised on a plan, it sounded more like what Romney favored than what Kennedy had suggested.
It required individuals, not businesses, to provide coverage. The plan will also "require enrollees to contribute toward the purchase of insurance based on a sliding-scale schedule," said an outline of the 2006 measure, with the government subsidizing what they cannot afford.
Meanwhile, costs for individuals and small businesses will be reduced "through pretax treatment of premium contributions."
That Kennedy-Romney debate took place on the stage at historic Faneuil Hall, the same place the two men met five years ago so the senator could stand behind the governor as he signed the Massachusetts bill into law.
A year ago, Kennedy's widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, looked on at the White House as Obama signed a federal law with the same principles: coverage achievement through mandatory private insurance for those who can afford it, with expanded government support for those who can't.
Individuals who try to ignore the mandate to get coverage face a tax penalty, just as those who are filing their Massachusetts income taxes this week are being reminded.
The short-term political risk for Romney is evident in the Democrats' intention: highlighting the connection between the Massachusetts and national laws reminds conservative Republicans that the former governor is partly responsible for what even he derides as "Obamacare."
And it's not just conservative Republicans where Romney is at risk: about half the states are suing to overturn the federal law, encompassing a broad swath of voters of both major parties and an array of political philosophies.
One of their principle targets is the mandated coverage, arguing the government should not force its citizens to buy a private product.
Romney has a two-fold strategy for surviving the assault.
The first is more granular, as Romney highlights vetoes he made to the Massachusetts law the day he signed it, and cost and anti-fraud controls Bay State Democrats have subsequently failed to make, while claiming the state's experiment hasn't been enacted precisely as he proposed.
The other is to make a broader, more philosophical argument: under the federalist principle, states such as Massachusetts should be free to do as they wish without having a federal program imposed on them.
Neither of those arguments is likely to work with hardcore conservatives, including those active in the Tea Party. Yet they have never been big Romney supporters, and the arguments offer some kind of explanation to the moderates and independents who will be the key to winning any general election campaign.
And in a 2012 general election matchup, Romney has the strong potential to obviate Obama's biggest domestic achievement universal health care and focus attention on the president's biggest domestic challenge the slow economic recovery.
And that focus plays to the strength of Romney, who preceded his career in politics with a career in business where he made a name for himself as a turnaround artist.
The question for Romney is whether he embraces the Massachusetts law in this manner.
During his first run for the presidency in 2008, Romney famously triggered a case of indigestion for his campaign staff by declaring "I like mandates" during a debate with his fellow Republican candidates.
Rival Fred Thompson played up the remark to their audience in Live-Free-or-Die New Hampshire, poking, "I beg your pardon? I didnít know you were going to admit that: You like mandates."
Romney backpedaled, saying: "Hereís my view: If somebody can afford insurance and decides not to buy it, and then they get sick, they ought to pay their own way, as opposed to expect the government to pay their way. And thatís an American principle. Thatís a principle of personal responsibility."
Today, Romney is arguing the federal law is not just unconstitutional, but "a massive abuse of constitutional authority." He also doesn't talk much about his "love" for mandates.
But five years ago tomorrow, Romney did something that many non-partisans say they desperately want today. A Republican worked with Democrats in a constructive fashion to solve a big problem facing the government. That solution was achieved with government support for a private system. And society moved along to other issues, instead of endlessly debating the same thing.
In that context, who should be buying the sheetcake?
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.