Mitt Romney’s health problems

The former Massachusetts governor attempts to distance himself from his health-care reforms. But wil

No, he's not the front-runner, but the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is determined to snatch the Republican presidential nomination this time round. This week he managed to raise $1m for his campaign in a single, brief visit to New York, the former president George W Bush helping to pull those big-time Wall Street donors in.

Yesterday, he tried to overcome one of his biggest political obstacles in the GOP heartlands: his record on universal health care.

For though Romney is no liberal, the Massachusetts health-care bill that he helped to design and signed into law is widely credited with inspiring the current president's Obamacare plan.

Yes, that's right, the "socialised medicine" plan that Republicans are up in arms about – the plan that Romney himself described as "an unconscionable abuse of power", the plan that some states are at this very moment trying to prove is against the US constitution – was based on a Republican's idea.

Big Bad Gov

The main part that Republicans are challenging is the part that says citizens will be required by law to have health insurance. It's Big Government gone mad and an intrusion into private lives, say the conservatives. This is a sentiment shared by Romney – even though his Massachusetts law introduced America's first such requirement, making everyone get health coverage or pay a fine.

Yesterday, in a suitably businesslike PowerPoint demonstration in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Romney argued that he wants to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, in the hope that this will lay to rest any idea that he was the man behind the idea in the first place.

Not that he's apologising for the Massachusetts law, as conservative activists would no doubt prefer. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal did not pull any punches: "His failure to explain his own role, or admit any errors, suggests serious flaws both in his candidacy and as a potential president."

There was a sort of rowing back in March when he told supporters that "our experiment wasn't perfect – some things worked, some things didn't, and some things I'd change". Today he'll be tackling the issue head on, riskily choosing to lay out the detail of what he'd like to see instead of Obama's reforms.

And instead of dwelling on details of the past, Romney explained his alternative, claiming that Obamacare tramples all over the rights of states. He said he wants to give states block grants to provide their share of Medicaid and children's health schemes.

Abort, retry, fail

People would get a choice between tax credits to help fund insurance provided by their employer, as happens now, or a new type of tax deduction for those who decide to buy their own plan. He'll allow people to buy insurance across state lines. And he'll keep – but narrow – the rules that currently prevent insurers from refusing to cover people with pre-exisiting conditions. According to one of his advisers, Mike Leavitt: "Government's role is to organise an efficient market, not run the system."

But, for Romney's critics, the role of government is exactly what's at stake. They believe his record on health care means he's fundamentally adrift from the GOP's core principles, which are based on letting the market and competition have their way.

The Democrats, naturally, are making as much as they can out of Romney's dilemma, releasing clips from a 1994 campaign speech where he supported the idea of a federal mandate, saying: "I'm willing to vote for things that I'm not wild with." And they have released their own mock-PowerPoint slides with some of those "missing ideas".

Romney has reinvented himself many times before. When he ran for the nomination in 2008 he depicted his Massachusetts health-care policy as a market-friendly alternative to the failed Bill Clinton plan, which managed to win him the backing of conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation. Plus there's that well-documented change of heart on abortion. In 2002, he ran as pro-choice. By 2007 he was declaring that his previous views had been wrong.

That led to something of a reputation for being a man who constantly changed his mind. Indeed, there are still websites dedicated to "Mitt Romney flip-flops". As one pundit wrote in the LA Times back in March: "If anything is transparently clear about American politics, it is that Mitt Romney will do or say anything to become president."

The former governor hopes that his detailed argument about the future of health care in the United States will succeed in changing that reputation. Good luck with that, Mitt. Sounds like you'll need it.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle