Romney's Healthcare Talking Points Still Need Work

Written by David Frum on Sunday April 3, 2011

Romney has developed a set of answers when he is asked about his Massachusetts healthcare plan, but they still need some work.

At the RJC annual meeting in Las Vegas, Mitt Romney delivered the big speech on Saturday.

He did a good job too, talking about issues from employment to Israel - everything really except guess what? As he finished and received his ovation, the woman to my right murmured "He's got my vote."

The audience noticed the omission too. At question time, the very first question was posed by a urologist who asked about the Romney healthcare plan in Massachusetts.

Here was Romney's answer:

First, he defended the plan as a necessary response to the problem of unpaid healthcare in emergency rooms.

Second, he offered an excuse for the plan as a legitimate innovation at the state level.

Third, he attacked President Obama for extending the plan to more than one state.

Finally, he promised to repeal the national healthcare plan.

All this took perhaps 90 seconds. The audience applauded the fourth part - and the governor joked, "They tell me when the audience applauds, to stop talking."

I doubt that answer will do the job for him.

In answer to a later question, Romney tried another approach. He joked that the president paid him the compliment of describing his plan as the inspiration for the president's own plan. "In that case," said Romney, "why didn't he call me?" Romney suggested the president should have asked him what worked and what didn't in the Massachusetts experiment.

This answer is getting more plausible.

Yet Romney did not himself specify what worked and what did not work, leaving the largest part of his case unmade. Ironically for him, a stronger defense of his own program would allow a more plausible attack on the federal program, as in:

We did this and that - it worked. But the feds added that and this - a costly mistake.

Every time I see Mitt Romney speak, I am struck by three things:

1) How hugely personally impressive he is, in ways big and small. He remembers the names of people in the audience. He knows the policy. He can be very funny. He's sharp, prepared, ready for any question. Underneath it all, he manifests personal character and decency. An audience member reproached him for running "too gentlemanly" campaigns in Massachusetts, praised Donald Trump for "taking the gloves off" against President Obama and demanded whether he was prepared to do the same. In a way that left the questioner nodding and smiling, Romney restated his preference for a campaign not based on personal attacks.

2) Romney has a tic of inserting caveats into his campaign boilerplate. For example, he blisteringly attacked President Obama for canceling  the European missile defense program. Here was something the Russians wanted, and President Obama gave it away without getting anything in return. Yet Romney's critique contained a clause to this effect, "Even if you wanted to cancel the program anyway..." Again and again, Romney would salt statements that his audience wanted to hear with little mental asterisks noting that maybe what they wanted to hear was not exactly accurate, or wise, or in accordance with his own private opinions. Ironically it is this unwillingness to do the full 100% pander that creates the impression of "inauthenticity." A less honest man would seem more authentic, at least for the moment.

3) Romney is truly a candidate of upper America. In Las Vegas, he spoke movingly of the impact of unemployment. Yet he opened this fine passage in his talk with an anecdote about traveling out from the home of friends in North Las Vegas to tour other people's foreclosed homes. He could view and empathize with the misfortune, but unmistakably he spoke of misfortune as something that happened to other people, people he did not know personally. American politics obviously has plenty of room for aristocrats. (See the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Bushes.) But typically, when people who start at the top enter politics, they either present themselves as tribunes of the under-privileged (like Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy), or else (like George W. Bush and to a certain extent Franklin Roosevelt) they tell a story of personal crisis and redemption.

Romney's story is very impressive in its own way: born to a successful father, he achieved an even greater success of his own. Yet Romney seems to have arrived at his success so smoothly, so gracefully, and so without inner turmoil and pain as to open a huge gap between his experiences and those of virtually everyone else in the United States. If he is to be president, he must find a way to close it.