As his somersaulting positions on abortion, immigration, Iran, Osama Bin Laden and myriad other issues showed, watching Mitt Romney's political gymnastics has long been painful. But with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Romney's contortionist act has reached a new low. Joining the ranks of Republicans demanding the repeal of an "unconstitutional" federal health care law virtually identical to the one he championed in Massachusetts, the 2012 White House hopeful finds himself "in a box" or the "nuance trap." But largely overlooked in Romney's latest effort to whitewash his Massachusetts health care success is the close partnership he forged with Ted Kennedy to achieve it.
As Karen Tumulty documented in November 2007, Governor Romney started on the road to his "defining moment" on health care almost from the moment he took office in 2002. His plan, which leveraged $385 million in federal Medicaid funding and $1.1 billion state was already spending to compensate hospitals for caring for the underinsured to subsidize the individual insurance mandate at its heart, quickly reduced the ranks of the uninsured from 13% to 3%. As MIT economics professor Jonathan Gruber, a Democrat who advised Romney then and candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards later, put it:
"He was incredibly impressive, with his intellect, his ability. If there is anything that qualifies him to be President of the United States, it is his leadership on this issue."
And as Tumulty recounted, Gruber wasn't alone. Ted Kennedy, Romney's former foe and the liberal lion of the Senate, was impressed as well. As it turns out, Teddy and Mitt worked together to lobby the Bush administration to secure the needed funding - and flexibility - needed to make it all possible:
Someone else took notice as well. No one has fought longer and harder for universal health coverage than Senator Edward Kennedy; he introduced a national health-insurance bill back in 1970. But he and the Governor were not exactly allies. Romney had challenged Kennedy for his Senate seat in 1994 in a nasty race. Reading the first outlines of Romney's plan in the Boston Globe, Kennedy decided the Republican Governor was serious about the issue, and he told his staff to reach out to Romney's advisers. Before long, Romney was in Kennedy's office in Washington, taking his PowerPoint slides with him. "Had Senator Kennedy said, 'This is a lousy idea, and I don't want anything to do with it,' I would have been back at square one," he admits.
Kennedy was sold, and both men turned to the question of how to pay for the plan. Part of the money could be shifted from the existing $1.1 billion fund through which hospitals had been compensated for the care they were providing the uninsured. But to fund universal coverage, they desperately needed to persuade HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson to allow Massachusetts to keep the $385 million in Medicaid funds that Washington was threatening to take away. The money would also give them leverage back home with health-care providers and businesses, two powerful constituencies and potential opponents of reform.
Their talks with Thompson went right down to the wire. The HHS Secretary signed the deal in a marathon negotiation with Romney and Kennedy that ended on Jan. 26, 2005, his last day on the job, while his going-away party was getting under way. The agreement stipulated that the commonwealth could keep the money but only if it passed a universal-coverage law.
But even with the funding secured, back in Boston passage of the new health care bill in early 2006 was no sure thing. Again, as Time's Tumulty detailed, Mitt Romney turned to his former foe turned ally Ted Kennedy to seal the deal:
"I asked for his help on certain legislators: 'Could you give a call on this one?'" Romney says. On March 22, 2006, Kennedy did more than that. He went to the floor of both the house and the senate on Beacon Hill and spoke in very personal terms about the battles with cancer his son and daughter had faced. "This whole issue in terms of universal and comprehensive care has always burned in my soul," Kennedy said. The Federal Government had failed the country on health care, he told the politicians, but "Massachusetts has a chance to do something about it."
The rest, as they say, is history. But as he headed into the Republican primaries in 2007, Romney did not make his signature achievement the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Instead, Mitt turned hard to the right to court the GOP base. "He rarely discusses the details of his Massachusetts plan," Tumulty reported, "and certainly doesn't tout his partnership with Kennedy." Instead, she noted of Romney during his presidential run, 'he cautiously adheres to by-the-book Republican dogma of giving individual states leeway in the form of tax breaks to design their own reforms."
Now, in his latest act of grandstanding for his party's reactionary right wing, Mitt Romney reacted to the passage of federal health care reform by announcing, "President Obama betrayed his oath to the nation." But as the sad history shows, it is Mitt Romney who betrayed Ted Kennedy in turning his back on what they together helped accomplish for the people of Massachusetts. More pathetic still, Romney betrayed himself. And for that, voters left and right likely won't forgive him.
(An earlier version of this piece also appears at Perrspectives.)