The Right and Romneycare

by Ramesh Ponnuru

W.W.” of The Economist, seconding Matt Yglesias, thinks that NR is displaying “cognitive dissonance” and “incoherence” with respect to Romneycare. I don’t see any cognitive failure, at least on my colleagues’ part.

Both writers highlight the supposed contradiction, or at least conflict, between the magazine’s editorial endorsing Romney in the 2008 primaries and its editorial criticizing his recent health-care speech. Romney wasn’t my candidate in 2008, so obviously I didn’t agree with everything in the earlier editorial. But I don’t see any inconsistency on NR’s part—or on the part of the many other conservatives who endorsed Romney around that time but inveigh against the mandate now (e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin).

The 2008 editorial says that Romney’s a conservative. It devotes one sentence to Romneycare: “He knows that not every feature of the health-care plan he enacted in Massachusetts should be replicated nationally, but he can also speak with more authority than any of the other Republican candidates about this pressing issue.” So, in short, the editorial implicitly both acknowledges and reflects conservative discomfort with Romney’s Massachusetts health-care plan, but suggests that what’s more important is that his plans for the federal government are superior and that he can talk about the issue and be taken seriously.

Here’s how the more recent editorial starts: “National Review endorsed Mitt Romney for president during the 2008 primaries. While we objected to the individual mandate he had enacted in Massachusetts — making the purchase of health insurance compulsory for residents of the commonwealth — we were willing to look past that flaw because his proposals for changing health-care policy as president were much better.” In other words, we weren’t enthusiastic about the state plan but liked the federal plan. So far, so consistent.

The editorial then continues: “But the enactment of Obamacare has raised the stakes on this issue. It is now of critical importance that Obama’s opponent in 2012 be able to make the case against the health-care law and for a sensible replacement.”

Yglesias writes, “What’s strange about this editorial is that it involves NR pretending that somehow it’s Romney who’s changed since they endorsed him four years ago rather than conceding that they’ve simply changed their standards of what counts as conservative health policy.” No. We don’t at any point claim that Romney’s position has changed. Neither have the principles we use to evaluate it. What’s changed are the political circumstances. Making the case against Obamacare wasn’t as important at the start of 2008 as it is now. That’s the explanation for the tonal shift between then and now, and it is quite explicitly spelled out (albeit not in any passages that W.W. or Yglesias quote).

Note that my colleagues don’t say: Romney is no conservative. They don’t say: There are no circumstances under which we would ever support anyone who has endorsed a state health-care plan resembling Obamacare and featuring an individual mandate. Speaking for myself, rather than my colleagues, I’d say that if Obamacare had failed in the House last year, the Massachusetts health-care plan would be a much smaller factor in my own thinking about Romney’s candidacy — and would be a much smaller political problem for Romney.