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PARKER: Mitt Romney's pre-emptive strike on health care plan

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker

Sitting under the lush palms and blue skies of the richest Americans’ favorite resort — during off-season when the rich wouldn’t be caught dead here, I hastily add — I naturally couldn’t wait to watch Mitt Romney's PowerPoint presentation on health care.

But duty beckoned and, several pots of coffee later, I can only add my own voice to those who concluded: Poor Mitt Romney — though for different reasons.

Romney is in a bit of a pickle, or so it seems at a glance. He’s running for president in part against Obamacare but has to acknowledge, as the president so often does, that Obamacare is modeled largely on the health care plan that Romney created while governor of Massachusetts.

Thus, tieless and professorial, Romney took the stage Thursday before a smallish audience at the University of Michigan and executed a pre-emptive strike against those who can’t stop talking about the similarities between President Obama’s and Romney’s respective plans, including the insurance mandate that conservative Americans find so repugnant.

Oy. Or, depending on one’s point of view, hallelujah!

The latter would be the chorus from the White House, as well as from Democrats and left-leaning pundits who quickly editorialized that Romney had made a great case for Obamacare. Meanwhile, the conservative Wall Street Journal pummeled poor Romney for not being a real conservative.

But let’s subdue our reflexes for a moment. Without wading into the weeds of health care reform, there are also significant differences between Romneycare and Obamacare. Chief among those differences: One is a massive federal program without cost controls that requires a vast bureaucracy to operate; the other is a more modest plan that constitutes less than 1 percent of the state budget.

More to the point, one was decided by the people of a single state, by and for themselves. The other presumes to dictate what individual states must do.

Romney’s central point was that what’s good for one state may not suit another and that states should have the freedom to choose what works best for them rather than have to conform to a federal one-size-fits-all plan, the ultimate costs of which are not really knowable. People who tell you they know what it would cost are simply fibbing. Off the record, every honest person in Washington will tell you: Nobody knows.

Whether one likes or dislikes Obama’s health care plan — and there are certainly parts to like — this has always been the crucial point. Keep it small; keep it simple; leave it to the states. Within that framework, what Romney did in Massachusetts is entirely defensible. It was an experiment; it was bold; it was imperfect.

As politics never relents, another important point seems to get lost: Just because something works well on the state level doesn’t necessarily mean it will work on the federal level. A family of three has different requirements than a family of 300. Or 3,000. Or 3 million. You get the picture.

My sense of “poor Romney” is that he may be too decent and earnest to be an effective politician. Which is not to impugn others, mind you, but heck-o-rama. Romney simply can’t win for winning. Even without a tie, he’s the tidiest, best-prepared boy in the class.

Email nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker at kathleenparker@washpost.com.