The CNN-Republican Party of Florida-Hispanic Leadership Network debate in Jacksonville packed the auditorium at the University of North Florida on Thursday evening. The debate overall was substantive, highlighting issues like foreign policy with Latin America and immigration and border security.
There were moments when the crowd voiced displeasure. For instance, the crowd booed the introduction of a political campaign issue that led to extended discussion over former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s work for Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s investments in the same.
The candidate who dominated the healthcare discussion, both in terms of time and substance, however, was former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Conservatives like Erick Erickson, editor of Red State and CNN contributor, have pointed out a singular weakness for Romney. The governor’s healthcare plan has taken on the label of ‘RomneyCare.’ The plan contains a mandate just as the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care plan (commonly called ObamaCare) does. The Massachusetts plan also penalizes those who choose not to purchase health insurance.
Romney has attempted to defend his plan on the premise of states’ rights. Doug Bandow with the libertarian-leaning CATO Institute analyzed the plan in an article published at Real Clear Politics:
As part of his liberal phase when governor of Massachusetts — political principles have been ever-flexible for Romney — he orchestrated passage of legislation with eerie similarities to ObamaCare. Massachusetts mandates purchase of insurance, decides what benefits must be offered, and maintains a complex system of subsidies and penalties. Declared Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker, the two programs are ‘not identical, but they’re certainly close kin.’ MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who advised both Gov. Romney and President Obama on health care, asserted: ‘Basically, it’s the same thing.'”
Bandow also pointed out that Romney backed a federal mandate for health insurance in 1994.
The governor continues to assert his plan was sound; he said during the debate it was “working pretty well.”
Santorum didn’t hesitate to engage his rival, noting that the mandate in both the federal and state plans are “about fundamental freedom.” Santorum said between the two plans there are no “clear contrasts”—those needed “to defeat Barack Obama.”
Santorum also said, “Just so I understand this, in Massachusetts, everybody is mandated as a condition of breathing in Massachusetts, to buy health insurance, and if you don’t…you have to pay a fine.”
Santorum drew out his argument, citing a study showing that “free ridership has gone up five-fold in Massachusetts…” People are paying the fine rather than obtaining insurance.
Romney disputed the figures and Santorum responded decisively. “I’ll be happy to give you the study.”
Conservatives used the example of ObamaCare during the 2010 midterms as the top issue, successfully capitalizing on the premise that a health insurance mandate is unconstitutional.
Conservatives like Erickson know that abandoning a position on ObamaCare will be lethal in a matchup with President Barack Obama in November.
Daniel Horowitz, writing for The Madison Project, referred to it as “Romney’s big healthcare lie.”
During the debate, Romney said it wasn’t “worth getting angry about.”
That statement has potential to anger both fiscal and social conservatives in the Republican Party.
Most conservatives remain negative to government-controlled healthcare. The same power brokers in the Republican Party who advanced the issue to criticize Obama now, according to critics, appear satisfied with a state-level equivalent of ObamaCare.
Santorum saw an opportunity and he seized it. Whether that translates into meaningful momentum in the Florida Primary on Tuesday is unknown.