Mitt Romney Must Clarify Defense of Individual Mandate

Mitt Romney and Ron Paul can't both be right about what constitutes "personal responsibility."

By + More

I sympathize a little with former Gov. Mitt Romney on the issue of the individual mandate. In effect, the conservative movement pulled the rug out from under him.

He copped the idea from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Conservative legal scholars didn't cry foul when Romneycare passed in 2006. Tea Party enforcer Sen. Jim DeMint didn't seem to have a problem with it. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich explicitly supported it as late as 2008.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Newt Gingrich.]

But when it became a central element of Obamacare, it suddenly became the thin end of the socialist wedge.

Still, Romney stretches things with his recent defense of the mandate:

What we did was right for the people of Massachusetts, the plan is still favored by 3 to 1 and it is fundamentally a conservative principle to insist that people take personal responsibility as opposed to turning to government for giving out free care.

Is the mandate really a reflection of the principle of personal responsibility?

[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates.]

Doesn't the purist case for personal responsibility look more like the one made by Rep. Ron Paul in the Tea Party debate, in which Paul said freedom is about letting people suffer the consequences of risky behavior?

Put it this way: If Romney and Paul both say they're for insisting on personal responsibility, they can't both be right.

What we have here are two subtly different conceptions of "personal responsibility."

When Romney uses the phrase, he means that, in the decision to purchase a major medical insurance policy, there's a self-evidently "responsible" choice: You get coverage, even if you're young and healthy.

When Paul uses it, he means you should be free not to buy it—and the rest of us shouldn't have to foot the bill if your luck turns rotten.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

Romney the technocrat probably thought of the individual mandate in terms of Cass Sunstein (currently serving in the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) and Richard Thaler's "nudge theory" of human behavior: Government can encourage people to make better choices through wiser "choice architecture" instead of blunt instruments.

The problem for Romney, of course, is that lots of conservatives now believe the mandate is a blunt instrument—and lustily cheer at Paul's more exacting definition of personal responsibility.

If Romney wants to continue to use the phrase to win over conservative skeptics, he's going to have to clarify what he means by it.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on healthcare.
  • See photos of healthcare reform protests.
  • See pictures of the GOP Candidates Heading to the Iowa Caucus.