For many conservatives, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its individual mandate pose unprecedented danger to our freedom. Since the health-care bill passed last spring, conservatives have decried its "tyranny" and Republicans have promised to restore "liberty" by repealing the law. You could say Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts endorsed a state-level individual mandate and signed a universal-health-care bill similar to the ACA, got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Romney needs these conservatives to win the GOP nomination, but he's been reluctant -- if not unable -- to disavow his work as governor. That's understandable: Not only was health-care reform his most important accomplishment; it's key to his image as a moderate Republican technocrat.
Today, in an effort to square the circle, Romney took to a podium at the University of Michigan and explained his position on health care. To start, he refused to back down from his work as governor: "I recognize that a lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should say that was a bone-headed idea, and I presume folks would think that would be good for me politically. But there's only one problem with that. It wouldn't be honest. I in fact did what I thought was right for the people of my state."
But to assuage conservatives, Romney made a states' rights attack on the ACA, presenting it as a dangerous overreach of federal power and an indication of the Obama administration's supposed contempt for capitalism and democracy.
"They fundamentally distrust free enterprise and distrust the idea that states are where the power of government resides," he said.
Of course, this was primarily a defense of his program, and once he burned through the obligatory anti-Obama rhetoric, he dived into a strong defense of the individual mandate and championed the broader idea that citizens have a responsibility to care for each other. On the individual mandate, Romney described it as such: "Either have insurance, or we're going to charge you for the cost of the fact that the state is going to have to cover you if you get seriously ill." By and large, this amounts to a conservative spin on a mandate contained within the ACA, which was further echoed with this description of RomneyCare's subsidies: "We gave people a premium support program where they could buy their own private insurance of their choice, and for the poor, we helped them with support."
Indeed, between lines like "The idea that we're just going to say, 'tough luck, you're too poor, you can't have health insurance," and "I had half a million people who were frightened because they didn't have insurance," this speech could have easily come from President Barack Obama or any other Democratic spokesperson.
This is great for Romney's appeal to independent voters, but not so much for his cache with Republicans. Early conservative reactions were negative. On Twitter, National Review's Jonah Goldberg joked that Romney was auditioning for David Axelrod's job, and the Reason's Peter Suderman said that Romney made "a much better case for ObamaCare than against it." Indeed, if anything, this speech reinforces The Wall Street Journal's assertion that Romney would better off as Joe Biden's replacement and not the Republican presidential nominee.
Romney does have one thing in his favor: He only needs to be convincing enough. If they're satisfied, conservative activists can ignore his support for the individual mandate in the same way that they overlooked John McCain's support for immigration reform in 2008. But judging from the Republican Party's rabid opposition to anything that looks like "Obamacare," I'd call that possibility a long shot.