Anyone who wanted a look at the rapidly changing face of the health care debate had to go no farther than the packed chapel at Emory University on Tuesday night.
Its morphing countenance looks a lot like Mitt Romney, the once and future Republican presidential candidate, who that evening paid no attention to the maxim that one ought not to peak too early. Not a pew went unfilled.
Agendas crowded the chapel as well.
The official occasion was a book tour to peddle autographed volumes of “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”
More informally, this was a reunion and refueling of Romney’s ’08 campaign team in Georgia. Team leaders sat on the front row. No book critics were in sight.
But this was also an opportunity for Romney to repackage Republican talking points for the post-passage debate over the new health care law.
Ten days after the history-making vote, GOP leaders are re-calculating where their message of “repeal and replace” will sell — and where it won’t.
No Republican can be more sensitive to the issue than Romney, who as governor in 2006, signed Massachusetts’ health care overhaul into law. Now that the dust has settled on President Barack Obama’s version, experts are calling one the progenitor of the other.
Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, advised both the Romney and Obama administrations on the topic. Romney “is in many ways the intellectual father of national health care reform,” the Boston Globe quoted Gruber as saying this week.
Romney distanced himself from his own health care overhaul during his presidential campaign. Even last month, he declared his plan and Obama’s as different as “night and day.”
But at Emory, Romney — perhaps having no other choice — embraced his own accomplishment. And acknowledged “a number of similarities” between the Massachusetts plan and the one passed by Congress.
“If you lose a job or change a job, you won’t lose your insurance. Everybody in Massachusetts is able to keep insurance throughout their life. It’s not taken away from them. So it’s portable,” Romney said.
“No. 2, you can’t be canceled if you have a pre-existing condition or if you become ill once you’re insured. So in that respect, it’s very similar,” the former governor said.
Romney had been introduced by Gov. Sonny Perdue, who days earlier had declared that “forcing people to purchase things they don’t want to purchase, I think, violates a constitutional right they have.”
But the former Massachusetts governor told the audience that government-mandated purchase of health care insurance is permissible — if the order comes from a state capital rather than Washington, D.C.
“There are people who — we call them free-riders — who say ‘I’m not going to be insured. If I have an accident or have a heart-attack, the government will pay for me,’” Romney said. “We say no more. You’ve got [the] responsibility, a personal responsibility, to get insured.”
For Romney, the key difference is federalism. “I like states being able to do what we did — not the federal government,” he said. The former governor also condemned Obama for raising taxes to accomplish his goal, accused the president of cutting Medicare, and of instituting price controls on the health care industry.
Romney said he favored court challenges of the type sought by Georgia’s governor. But his wording was carefully couched. “I can’t say what the right judicial strategy should be, for trying to stop or slow down Obamacare, or reverse it, in key aspects,” he said.
While most Republicans want the grassroot fires stoked for a strong November performance, Romney is playing the longer game — for ’12.
His speech was geared toward a GOP establishment that has seen trends come and go. Romney said nothing to offend the tea party movement, but neither did he cater to it.
He dismissed the opportunity to condemn the Federal Reserve as a conspirator’s black hole — “I don’t want it to go away” — and refused to answer, with a simple yes or no, whether he believed the United States was a Christian nation.
Romney may also be betting that, in 12 months time, the health care debate will have shifted toward something less toxic. Further from “whether,” and deeper into “how.”
“Is the politics good? I don’t know,” Romney said. “I think we’re past the time to worry about whether the politics are good or bad.”
For instant updates, follow me on Twitter.