I kid Mitt Romney a lot, because in a country full of phony politicians, his phoniness is so transparent and encompassing. But let's put that aside, and offer Romney some qualified praise.

Newsweek has an interesting interview with Romney on the subject of health care, one that shows both the promise and the peril of Romney's situation. Here's the promise part: If Romney became the Republican nominee in 2012, we could actually have an interesting debate about where to go from here on health-care reform. Romney understands the issue better than any of the other Republicans running for president -- not just because he's smarter than they are but because he wrestled with it at length when he was working on Massachusetts' reform, which looks almost identical to the one that was just passed by Congress.

Romney's quandary, of course, is that he is forced by the requirements of GOP primary politics to agree that Obamacare is the worst thing that has ever happened to America. He attempts to pretend that there is some profound difference between the Massachusetts reform and the national reform (there really isn't), and falls back on the idea that this should all be done at the state level. The interview is maddening in parts, with Romney pirouetting about to claim he hates Obama's reform as much as anyone. But beyond that, he needs to argue that his reform was fundamentally conservative, which he does in the following way:

But in my view, and others are free to disagree, expecting people who can afford to buy insurance to do so is consistent with personal responsibility, and that's a cornerstone of conservatism. I think what many people don't recognize is that we have universal health care in America already. We don't have universal health insurance, we have universal health care—where government is paying for free-riders who could afford to care for themselves but instead push the burden to the government. That in my opinion is the big-government approach that we have. What we substituted instead is something which is more conservative in my view. Instead of government caring for people who can afford to care for themselves, we expected people to care for themselves.

In other words, the individual mandate is conservative. It's an interesting argument, albeit one likely to convince virtually no Republican primary voters. They've become so invested in the idea that health-care reform is evil that they won't be persuaded to think about it in a different way. But keep trying, Mitt!

-- Paul Waldman

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