Earlier today, I made mention of the fact that CNN's Wolf Blitzer, armed with a golden opportunity to ask Mitt Romney what he would replace Obamacare with, didn't bother to inquire.
Blitzer is not exactly alone in this. The various GOP candidates have largely stopped pretending to have alternate plans to provide affordable health care for Americans who have been historically locked out of the system, and the media has largely let the matter drop.
But it turns out that intellectual curiosity is not entirely dead, as my colleague Elise Foley has caught NBC late-night host Jay Leno asking Romney some hard questions about what a President Romney would do on Tuesday night's edition of the "Tonight Show."
LENO: So you would make the law stand for children and people with pre-existing conditions?
ROMNEY: People with pre-existing conditions -- as long as they’ve been insured before -- they’re going to continue to have insurance.
LENO: Suppose they were never insured?
ROMNEY: Well, if they're 45 years old, and they show up, and they say, 'I want insurance because I've got a heart disease,' it's like, 'Hey guys, we can’t play the game like that.'
'You’ve got to get insurance when you’re well, and if you get ill, then you’re going to be covered.'
LENO: I know guys at work in the auto industry, and they're just not covered ... They’ve just never been able to get insurance. And then they get to be 30, 35 and were never able to get insurance before. Now they have it. That seems like a good thing.
ROMNEY: We'll look at a circumstance where someone was ill and hasn't been insured so far. But people who have had the chance to be insured -- if you’re working in an auto business, for instance, the companies carry insurance; they insure all their employees -- you look at the circumstances that exist. But people who have done their best to get insured are going to be able to be covered. But you don’t want everyone saying, 'I'm going to sit back until I get sick and then go buy insurance.' That doesn’t make sense. But you have to find rules that get people in that are playing by the rules.
The key part is the last bit. It doesn't "make sense" to Romney to have "everyone saying, 'I'm going to sit back until I get sick and then go buy insurance.'" As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent pointed out, Romney has relevant experience as to how you solve this problem:
What’s particularly interesting about the above exchange is that Romney himself detailed exactly the problem that the individual mandate is designed to fix: If people wait until they get sick before getting insurance, it fouls up the system. As he puts it, ..."you've got to get insurance when you're well." Romney's recognition of the policy problem, of course, is why he passed a mandate at the state level in Massachusetts.
Sargent noted that Romney is only in this bind because of the vagaries of "GOP primary politics," which dictate that Romney's once highly touted solution to the problem of universal health care coverage is now considered to be a constitutional abomination among the elites of the Republican Party.
For the millionth time, I'll defend Romney in this regard. For all of Romney's history as a flip-flopper, on this key issue it's all of Romney's would-be Republican allies that have flopped on him. Is that fair? Of course not.
But fair or not, Romney has to decide what he would put in place of the Affordable Care Act if it goes down as a result of a Supreme Court ruling or if a bill to repeal it lands on his desk. It seems to me that Romney could own his own policy and let the current law stand -- which would effectively end the opportunity to argue health care with President Barack Obama in the general election. (It could be argued that this doesn't particularly put Romney at a disadvantage.) Or he could go back to the drawing board and come up with a whole new health care innovation that passes whatever passes for passing muster with the current base alignment of the Republican Party.
What Romney has offered thus far, as Sargent wrote, is "nothing." But even as he explicates the "nothing" that's on offer, you can see Romney using language that suggests he doesn't really believe "nothing" to be the right solution. Instinctually, he knows there's a problem and he knows how to talk about it. But talking about it draws him ever closer to embracing the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate.
Romney should be made to answer the question, one way or another. And all the press has to do is be at least as good at pursuing the inquiry as Jay Leno!
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