Healthcare Mandate Could Have Turned Off Democrats

If Romney had been elected president in 2008 and championed a healthcare individual mandate, would Democrats have supported him as they did Obama?

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It's become commonplace for supporters of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate to point out, not inaccurately, that the idea has moderate Republican roots.

They charge, further, that the only reason the individual mandate has come to symbolize the end of free-market capitalism in America is because President Obama embraced it.

There's some truth to this, but I think this assumption lets Democrats off too easily. [Check out our editorial cartoons on healthcare.]

But what if the shoe were on the other foot?

Let's take a ride in the Counterfactual Machine:

Imagine Mitt Romney had been elected president in 2008 and championed the healthcare reform plan he signed into law in Massachusetts. After all, he called the reforms there a "model for the nation."

Imagine that he won over skeptical Republicans by massaging conservatives' get-tough, take-personal-responsibility erogenous zone and calling the mandate "the ultimate conservative idea—which is that people have responsibility for their own care, and they don't look to government to take care of them if they can afford to take care of themselves."

Imagine, too, that Romney gained support for the mandate by reasoning it would bring enough revenue into insurance pools to pay for coverage subsidies, thereby avoiding higher taxes. [See photos of the GOP hopefuls on the campaign trail.]

Under this not-far-fetched scenario, Barack Obama has lost the election and therefore has no reason to depart from his original stance against the mandate, which he laid out explicitly on The Ellen Degeneres Show in 2008:

Both [Sen. Hillary Clinton and I] want to provide healthcare to all Americans. There's a slight difference, and her plan is a good one. But she mandates that everybody buy healthcare. She'd have the government force every individual to buy insurance and I don't have such a mandate because I don't think the problem is that people don't want health insurance, it's that they can't afford it. So I focus more on lowering costs. This is a modest difference. But it's one that she's tried to elevate, arguing that because I don't force people to buy healthcare that I'm not insuring everybody. Well, if things were that easy, I could mandate everybody to buy a house, and that would solve the problem of homelessness. It doesn't.

I bring all this up to ask: What if the mandate had stayed a Republican idea? [See our slideshow: 10 Winners in the Healthcare Debate.]

Would Democrats be marching in lockstep behind it?