That piece, written by the Cato Institute's Michael F. Cannon, reasoned thusly: with its mandates for individuals (who have to purchase coverage or pay a penalty) and employers (who have to provide a minimum-coverage contribution or pay a penalty of their own), plus the creation of a new bureaucracy (the "Commonwealth Connector") to match citizens with low-cost insurance plans, RomneyCare is hardly true to free-market principles. It's a case study in inappropriate government intrusion — and it's making health care in Massachusetts worse, not better.
Both Cannon's premises and conclusions are debatable. Still, they highlight a serious challenge to Romney's presidential ambitions. Thanks to the acrimonious tone of the health-care-reform debate — and the conviction, among a substantial part of the conservative base, that any government attempts to improve health-care represent a dire menace — one of Romney's biggest legislative achievements now looks like a grave liability.
A footnote takes the lead
So are Romney's White House dreams doomed?
Absolutely not, insists, Ronald Kessler — who, in addition to being NewsMax's chief Washington correspondent and author of the just-released In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect (Crown), is one of Romney's most enthusiastic boosters in the conservative press. "There was always skepticism among conservatives about Romney's health-insurance plan," Kessler tells the Phoenix. "Naturally, they're bringing it out again because of the current debate. But it was always a footnote when it came to looking at Romney overall." (Palin's withdrawal, Kessler adds, means she won't be viable in 2012 — and with her out of the mix, "Romney just stands above everybody else right now.")
That may be true. But Romney's embrace of government-driven health-care reform is sure to receive far more attention in 2012 — both because it's the dominant national topic for the first time since the Clinton administration and because outcomes of the Massachusetts law (which, among other things, also provides subsidized private coverage for lower-income individuals) can now be assessed in greater detail.
"The Democrats are modeling a lot of their plan on what happened in Massachusetts, and Republicans really feel set up," says Erick Erickson, editor of redstate.org. "Romney ran in 2008 before the Massachusetts health-care system blew up — and now it's blown up. It's hurting."
In fairness, the consequences of the Massachusetts system are very much a mixed bag. As a recent Boston Globe editorial noted, 97 percent of Massachusetts residents now have health care, and public opinion has favored the reforms in question. Then again, the average wait to see a doctor in Massachusetts is painfully long — and the state boasts the highest health-care premiums in the country. (In a nod to political expediency, the 2006 law didn't deal with cost control.)
Any serious accounting of Romney's achievements in Massachusetts should acknowledge the good as well as the bad. But given the eagerness of conservative pundits to knock Obama's own health-care-reform proposals — and the widespread belief that panning Romney's efforts in Massachusetts will help the anti-Obama cause — such balance has been rare.
Instead, everyone from Fox News' Bill O'Reilly to the New York Times' Ross Douthat and the Wall Street Journal editorial page has been citing RomneyCare as a cautionary tale. Here's the beginning of a representative July 11 Journal op-ed: