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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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.