UNITER, OR ANOTHER...

UNITER, OR ANOTHER DIVIDER? There�s a good column from E.J. Dionne today handicapping the coming wars in the Republican Party. Dionne surveys the GOP's 2008 landscape and notices that there are a series of real choices staking out territory, each of which would portend something radically different for the Republican Party's future. I agree with him particularly in his assessment of Mitt Romney, who Dionne writes is "his party's most interesting new voice, [and] could be expected to run in part as a problem-solver who worked with Democrats in Massachusetts for a bipartisan approach to health care. This would mean arguing for a break from the bitter partisanship of the Bush Era."

That is how Romney will run. And, in doing, he'll shift the terms of the health care debate left, forcing his opponents to counter with similarly productive and substantial proposals. But remember, George W. Bush ran as a uniter, not a divider, too, and we saw how that turned out. So it's worth not being too quick to take Romney at his word. In the June issue of The American Prospect, I reported on the political genesis of the Massachusetts health reforms, and I was surprised both by how much credit the state's pols gave Romney and how totally certain they were that he'd never enact anything similar on the national stage.

This is all explained more fully in the piece, but Romney was basically forced to kickstart health reform by the federal government's threat to revoke a $700 million waiver on the one hand and the Health Care For All's threat of a universal care ballot initiative. And once forced to act, the outcome was always going to be bipartisan, as both the House and the Senate contained veto-proof Democratic majorities. Indeed, it was really they who agreed to negotiate with him, not the other way around. Meanwhile, Massachusetts has a very small pool of uninsured and a very large amount of money already dedicated to paying for them, so the reforms were achievable with no new taxes, Romney's primary concern. As that can't be done nationally, the smart money is on him doing virtually nothing, and even if he did, there's no guarantee that it'd be bipartisan, as the Democratic majorities that controlled the process in Massachusetts don't exist in Congress. So Romney may live up to his genial, compromising rhetoric, but his experience in Massachusetts, much like Bush's in Texas, isn't telling enough to confidently draw a conclusion. State politics are very different from national politics, and Romney's state is even more different than most.

--Ezra Klein

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