Mitt Romney Explains Away Support For Individual Mandates With Rationalizations [UPDATE]

05/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many expect former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to emerge as the frontrunner for the 2012 nomination. And, because of this, there's an additional expectation that Romney will have a difficult task ahead of him, squaring his support for government-provided health care and individual mandates as governor with his opposition to the same as a putative opponent of President Barack Obama.

Why does anyone expect this to be difficult? This is Mitt Romney we're talking about, whose standard issue response is basically to be in favor of whatever will help him win and be against anything he thinks will help him lose. That's the macro consistency running beneath any number of inconsistent positions he's taken in the past.

But okay, how will he overcome the hurdle? Well, as Greg Sargent points out, he'll do it with some convoluted rationalizations:

Now Romney has ventured a new argument: The individual mandate -- as it exists in his plan, at least -- is actually rooted in conservative principles. Romney made the claim at the very end of an interview with Larry King last night:

KING: You are regarded as a true conservative. Where are you, politically, in the labeling business?

ROMNEY: My dad used to be asked that question. I liked what he would say. He would say, I'm conservative as the Constitution and as progressive as Lincoln. And you can look at my positions. Many of my positions I believe are very conservative, all of them, frankly. I know some people say, gee, your Massachusetts health care plan isn't conservative. I say oh, yes it is.

Because right now in this country, people that don't have health insurance go to the hospital if they get a serious illness, and they get treated for free by government. My plan says no, they can't do that. No more free riders. People have to take personal responsibility. I consider it a conservative plan.

Basically, the difference is one of philosophy: a state government can impose an individual mandate, but the federal government cannot. That's an argument that could get plenty of mileage within state's rights/"tenther" circles, but it doesn't exactly mitigate the practical outcomes of these policies: the imposition of an individual mandate by the government, in some form.

What's fascinating about this is that, if Mitt wanted to, there's plenty of room for him to run in support of his own health care reform plan writ large and yet put distance between himself and Obama. Romney could highlight his management of the issue, the lack of rancor, the increased bipartisanship and the relative popularity of his health care measure in Massachusetts to suggest that he's a better leader, or more transparent, or more "post-partisan," or more effective. Once upon a time, I thought that Romney's greatest strength as a candidate was his ability to play the happy American technocrat.

But the technocratic/managerial path is just not open to Romney, because the ongoing state of conservative convolutions over health care reform are basically, totally insane. And as long as generic opposition to health care lives in a world where everyone is paranoid about socialism or "death panels," Romney can't do that. So, Romney has to accept the insanity frame. But that's okay, really, because what Romney does best is offer tortured rationalizations for his constantly shifting positions.

UPDATE: Ben Bell at the Boston Herald takes up Romney's contorted positions, here. This point is especially astute:

In the coming months and years, Romney is bound to assert that the two plans are completely different - but that is a losing strategy. The American attention span is getting smaller not larger. We communicate in 140 characters now. Engaging in a debate over the intricacies of the different types of universal health care plans is not something people want to do. So the reality is this: Romney supported universal health care in Massachusetts and he looks duplicitous bashing Obama's plan when his plan was quite similar.

I think that's a pretty excellent point. Romney's explanation is just a long, long walk in the woods, whereas supporters of the health care reform package can pretty simply point out that Romney supported the same kind of individual mandates. Even if Romney's explanation led to some sort of honest distinction, it falls way short of simplicity.

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