Rick Santorum, in his strongest attack yet on Mitt Romney, insisted that the issue of Romney's CommonWealth Care was a "foundational" issue in the campaign, one that could not be "given away" in the general election to President Barack Obama. Romney had just finished his standard defense of his health care reform -- it was working well and citizens of Massachusetts liked it.
Santorum was quick to denounce this: "What Governor Romney just said is that government-run top-down medicine is working well in Massachusetts and he supports it." Over Romney's objections, Santorum continued:
Think about what that means going up against Barack Obama ... You are going to claim [about the Affordable Care Act], well, it doesn't work and we should repeal and he's going to say, wait a minute Governor, you said it works well in Massachusetts. Folks -- we can't give this issue away in this election. It is about fundamental freedom ... It's going to be on your ballot as to whether there should be a government mandate here in Florida. According to Governor Romney, that's OK. Those are not the clear contrasts we need if we're going to defeat Barack Obama and a billion dollar debt.
What Romney did next was a mistake.
I didn't say I'm in favor of top-down, government-run health care. 92 percent of the people in my state had insurance before our plan went in place and nothing changes for them. They have the same private insurance they had before. And for the 8 percent of people who didn't have insurance, we said to them, if you can afford it, buy it yourself, any one of the plans out there, choose any plan. There's no government plan. And if you don't want to buy insurance, then you have to help pay for the cost of the state picking up your bill.
That is almost precisely the way Obama has described "Obamacare." Romney did touch on an authentic difference, pointing out that the Affordable Care Act impacted Medicare. As Romney said, "We didn't, of course, touch anything like that." But that wasn't a matter of choice -- as a governor, Romney couldn't make those sorts of adjustments.
Santorum could have spiked the ball quicker and harder than he did, but he eventually made his way around to saying, "Your mandate is no different than Barack Obama's mandate. It is the same mandate."
But the similarity between the way Romney described his plan and the way the White House talks about the Affordable Care Act is so strikingly similar that Romney's response in this debate would be fodder for a pretty great attack ad.