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Romney the reformer, and the risks of roadkill

A Republican's health reform is similar to Obama's health reform

It has been fascinating to watch Mitt Romney during these first days of the health reform era (or, as the Republicans call it, "Armageddon"). We've long known, of course, that Romney has a penchant for retooling his convictions to fit the exigencies of the moment, but what this presidential aspirant is doing this week - shedding his old image as a responsible, pragmatic executive; brandishing a pitchfork so that he can pander to the most irrational elements of the conservative base - is downright breath-taking.

There's no mystery why he's doing this. He wants to win the '12 GOP nomination (although he has yet to formally declare his candidacy), and he figures that the best way to win the key early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina is to convince right-leaning primary voters that he too sees Barack Obama as a socialist/fascist/Kenyan/whatever and a betrayer of America besides. Which is why, on Monday, Romney claimed that the president has "betrayed his oath to the nation" by signing "unconstitutional" health care reform; and why, yesterday, he circulated an email asking his political supporters to donate money to the cause of repealing health care reform.

And yet, despite his latest fervently rightward tilt, I suspect that Romney may well wind up as roadkill after his rival contestants out him as a phony. It's a 30-second attack ad waiting to happen, and it has the advantage of being essentially true:

The Obama health reform law that Romney purportedly loathes actually resembles, in many key respects, the Massachusetts health reform law that Romney championed and signed as governor - starting with the individual mandate, the requirement that all citizens purchase health insurance. The same requirement that Romney now finds so objectionable.

Rather than having me list the provisions that the two laws have in common, let's turn the job over to Fox News. Seventeen days ago, host Chris Wallace sliced Romney to ribbons on this very issue. Here's Wallace: "Let's look at the plan that you signed into law in Massachusetts in 2006. You have an individual mandate. You have an employer mandate. You have subsidies for some of the uninsured. You set minimum insurance coverage standards. Again, a lot of emails I got from conservatives make this point. They say it sure sounds an awful lot like Obamacare....We got a lot of email from conservatives this week who said that you are the wrong man" to be making the case against Obama.

This is not good. A Republican presidential aspirant who runs afoul of Fox News might as well give it up and go sell shoes. At one point, Romney insisted that his reform law had "no government insurance, no government option, if you will." Wallace retorted, "Well, there's no government option in the Obama plan anymore, either." To which Romney sputtered, "No, that's right, that's right, and so what we did was entirely different..." It was ugly, watching this guy trying to shed his own record.

The record shows that, when Romney was governor and closest to his true self as a business-oriented executive, he worked overtime to cover the uninsured and require everyone to purchase coverage - with government subsidies, if necessary. He became the first (and he's still the only) governor to sign a health insurance mandate.

On April 8, 2006, shortly before signing the Massachusetts law, he talked up health reform on NPR, sounding much like Obama today: "We're spending a billion dollars giving health care to people who don't have insurance. And my question was, could we take that billion dollars and help the poor purchase insurance? Let them pay what they can afford. We'll subsidize what they can't."

He told NPR that the reforms would work only if everyone bought coverage. He said that those citizens who can afford insurance would be required to buy it - "otherwise, you're just passing your expenses on to someone else." Obama couldn't have said it better.

But my favorite part was when Romney attacked those who would defy the law and refuse to buy coverage: "That's not Republican, that's not Democratic, that's not libertarian. That's just wrong."

Today, it's clear that Romney 2.0 (or perhaps it's 3.0) would prefer that conservative Republican voters ignore the earlier Romney or, better yet, remain blissfully unaware. The latter scenario is not very likely. The conservative Club for Growth, the interest group that seeks to expunge all moderate impulses from the GOP, is already assailing Romney; as Club official Andy Roth reportedly remarked two weeks ago, "The individual mandate is diametrically against what free-market conservatives believe in," and if Romney thinks he won't be held accountable for his mandate, "then I think he is in the wrong party."

And wait to see what happens during the long presidential primary season (which, believe it or not, begins in a mere eight months, right after the midterms). Rival Republican candidates will likely bring up the Massachusetts law in the debates, and they will likely distill its essence in the TV ads. Just like in the Fox News gig, Romney will have to spend precious time on defense, explaining how his law differs from Obama's law. He who toils on defense is least likely to survive.

In theory, Romney could take the opposite tack - by pointing out that the health coverage mandate concept was actually hatched by the conservative Heritage Foundation back in the early '90s, as a way to get people to take responsibility for themselves - but, of course, it would be political suicide for him to suggest that conservatives are now behaving as hypocrites, attacking their own mandate concept only because Obama has embraced it. And besides, there's no way Romney can flip flop yet again, now that he has morphed into a placard-wielding populist who's apparently intent on assailing the mandate embraced by his former self. His new, overcompensating self may be his only hope for capturing conservative hearts, tenuous as those prospects might be.

So he'll have to twist in the wind indefinitely, even as the White House keeps twisting the knife. On Monday, press secretary Robert Gibbs mentioned the similarities between Obama's law and Romney's law, before adding: "I'm sure Gov. Romney hates every time I say that." You can bet on it.