Romney's `No Apology' for Health Law in Massachusetts May Hinder 2012 Bid

The title of Mitt Romney’s book, “No Apology,” has some Republican critics saying he should think about making an exception.

The former Massachusetts governor has been insistent that the 2006 health-care law he shepherded into law in his state that requires individuals to purchase insurance is distinct from President Barack Obama’s national plan.

Rulings by federal judges in Virginia and Florida that the U.S. law’s so-called individual mandate is unconstitutional, though, have highlighted skepticism among many Republicans about Romney’s argument.

“The grassroots feels this is a litmus test” as Romney prepares for a presumed 2012 presidential run, said Tom Gaitens, co-founder of the Tea Party in Tampa, Florida, site of the Republican nominating convention. “Defending his law in Massachusetts is a misstep. Admit you made a mistake and let’s move forward.”

Romney, 63, didn’t broach the health-care issue in a speech today to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. Instead, he aimed attacks at Obama’s foreign and economic policies.

“An uncertain world has been made more dangerous by the lack of clear direction” from Obama, Romney said.

‘Moral Tragedy’

He also said Obama failed in not focusing on America’s “job crisis” during his first two years in office. Romney called the nation’s unemployment rate, which stood at 9 percent in January, a “moral tragedy.”

Romney’s avoidance of the health-care issue left some supporters grumbling. Christopher Kniesler, a political consultant from New Jersey wearing a Romney sticker, said after the speech that he was heading to talk with Romney’s advisers about the matter.

Romney “upped his game,” and “is ten times more polished” than when he ran for president four years ago, said Kniesler. Still, referring to health care, he said, “I would love to see him take that issue right on in his stump speech. It has to happen. That’s going to be the biggest criticism hanging around his head.”

Straw Poll

The CPAC gathering, which organizers say will attract more than 10,000 participants, has become an early testing ground for Republican presidential prospects. Results of a straw poll at the event will be announced at its concluding session tomorrow.

In previous remarks, Romney has defended the Massachusetts health-care law by saying insurance mandates should be the prerogative of states and not the federal government. And the topic remains something he can’t ignore in his still unofficial nomination bid, said Alex Castellanos, an adviser to Romney in his 2008 presidential campaign.

“What he did at the state level is what Obama did at the federal level,” Castellanos said. “This will be an interesting test for him.”

Castellanos, who no longer advises Romney, said he believes his one-time client needs to quickly make a clear distinction between the Massachusetts health-care law and the federal one. “If he doesn’t swing at this pitch, he doesn’t have many strikes left,” Castellanos said.

Other Republicans mentioned as presidential prospects include Governors Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, Representatives Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas, former Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania -- all of whom had speaking slots before CPAC.

Not Present

Potential contenders who aren’t attending the event include Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who sought the nomination four years ago, and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who has announced he’ll resign that post.

Romney raised $4.7 million for his political action committee last year, more than any of his party’s presidential prospects. As of yesterday, he was in a virtual tie for first place with Huckabee in an average of polls compiled by the RealClearPolitics website. Each had an overall figure of about 19 percent support; Palin was next with a little more than 16 percent.

For the paperback release last week of “No Apology,” first published last year, the subtitle was changed from “The Case for American Greatness” to “Believe in America.” It also contains a new introduction in which Romney criticizes Obama’s “extreme liberal agenda.”

Equity Firm

Before his 2003-2007 stint as governor, Romney co-founded the Boston-based private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC, and helped turn the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, into a financial success. He touts those credentials as the U.S. economy struggles to rebound from the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

As president, he said in his speech today, he wouldn’t have to rely on advisers for instruction on how the economy works. “I know,” he said.

Still, repealing the federal health-care law remains paramount for the anti-tax activists who fueled Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections.

“That issue is the number one reason why Mitt Romney’s candidacy is not going to be successful with the Tea Party movement,” said Francisco Gonzalez, founder of the Tea Party movement in Tallahassee, Florida.

Romney, through his staff, declined interview requests.

‘Template’

Amitabh Chandra, a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the Massachusetts law “was the template” for the federal one, “there’s absolutely no question about it.”

In Massachusetts, taxpayers face a fine of up to $1,116 per year for failure to purchase insurance. The penalty in the federal law will be phased in, reaching up to $2,085 or 2.5 percent of a family’s income -- whichever is greater -- by 2016.

Romney, in defending Massachusetts’ individual insurance mandate during a Feb. 1 appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” said “states have rights that the federal government doesn’t have” under the U.S. Constitution.

He also said, “We don’t need the federal government imposing a one-size-fits-all requirement on the nation.”

‘Federalist Argument’

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said the former governor will keep offering a “strong federalist argument” that health- care policy should be handled by each state. Fehrnstrom cited an August 2007 speech to the Florida Medical Association in which Romney said, “I like what we came up with, but I will let other states make their own choice.”

His argument could backfire if voters fail to see a difference between a state or the federal government doing the mandating.

“This could be a made-to-order TV ad for one or several of his opponents,” said Keith Appell, a public relations executive and former spokesman for the anti-tax Club for Growth. “As Jerry Seinfeld would say, ‘good luck with THAT.’”

To contact the reporter on this story: Heidi Przybyla in Washington at hprzybyla@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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