Politically, these defenses are only slightly better than nothing. The first one sidesteps the part of the Massachusetts plan that most bothers conservatives: the individual mandate it shares with Obamacare. The second argument will appeal to some conservatives. A state mandate does not raise the constitutional concerns the federal one does. But conservatives who consider the federal mandate incompatible with individual liberty will not find it much more congenial at the state level. The mandate, by the way, is also the most unpopular part of the law with the public at large. That is not an issue Romney would be able to bring up against Obama as the party’s nominee.
Even after his latest speech, the health-care issue remains extremely dangerous to Romney for several reasons. It exacerbates the character issue. He cannot repudiate the plan because he already flip-flopped on so many issues during the 2008 race, including abortion, guns, immigration, and gay rights. But defending the plan makes him look slippery, since the only way he can do it while running for the Republican nomination is to pretend that it is nothing like Obama’s law.
The unpopularity of the law among Republican primary voters also means that Romney cannot brag about his main legislative accomplishment as governor. Take it out of the picture — which is the best-case scenario for Romney — and primary voters are left looking at a rich, smooth former governor of Massachusetts who cannot point to any big success in office.