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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.