Mitt Romney Takes On Healthcare In Mich. Speech

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Mitt Romney, who is exploring another run for the White House, was in Ann Arbor, Mich., Thursday, talking about healthcare. It's an issue that's likely to be among the most difficult he'll face in his bid for the Republican nomination for 2012.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has yet to declare his run for the White House, but he is working to clear away one of his obstacles to success. It's a given that any Republican candidate would have to absolutely totally oppose President Obama's Health Care Law and favor its repeal; and Romney says he certainly does. The problem is that President Obama has said a model for the law was a Massachusetts plan signed into law by Mitt Romney himself.

Yesterday in Michigan, Romney worked to layout what he would do on that signature issue.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea was listening.

DON GONYEA: Mitt Romney has still not officially declared himself a candidate for 2012. But even at this very early stage, he decided that he needed to address the health care issue and the matter of his signature on a universal health care bill in Massachusetts from 2006.

Standing in a lecture hall at the University of Michigan Medical Center, and armed with a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation, the former governor began working through slides showing the differences between the law he signed and the national law President Obama signed last year.

MITT ROMNEY: Our plan was a state solution to a state problem. And his is a power grab by the federal government to put in place a one size fits all plan across the nation.

GONYEA: And that is the crux of his argument, that this is a responsibility for individual states and not the federal government.

Other GOP hopefuls have not shied away from attacking Romney over his health care law, even as Democrats like to praise the Massachusetts law and Romney's role in it - looking to create problems for him with Republican voters.

Between slides, Romney did address the political.

ROMNEY: I also recognize that a lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say: This whole thing was a mistake; that it was just a boneheaded idea, and I should just admit it - it was a mistake and walk away from it.

GONYEA: There's a problem with that, he said.

ROMNEY: It wouldn't be honest. I, in fact, did what I believed was right for the people of my state.

GONYEA: Now, the fundamental and controversial similarity between the Massachusetts law and the national law is that both mandate that everyone purchase insurance. Yesterday, Romney defended the mandate in the state law saying it was to make sure people who are healthy don't opt out of health insurance, knowing they can pick up coverage later.

ROMNEY: This again, under the 10th Amendment, was a state decision. Other states can take a different choice.

GONYEA: But the mandate is also the thing that critics of the national Affordable Care Act say makes it unconstitutional. For them, it's a core conservative principle, which is what makes this so very difficult for Romney.

Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic magazine and author of the book "Sick: the Untold story of the American Health Care Crisis," is a liberal critic of Romney's. He says Romney hurts his cause by making the case for a state mandate so effectively.

JONATHAN COHN: For a lot of conservative voters, they think a mandate is wrong, morally. No one should tell you, you have to get insurance. Romney stood up there today and made an elegant case for why, yes, you should be told you have to get health insurance.

GONYEA: The question is will Romney's explanations satisfy Republican primary voters.

Richard Hall is a political scientist at the Gerald R. Ford School at the University of Michigan. He says Romney is probably right to stand by the Massachusetts law.

RICHARD HALL: I think it's politically the smartest move he has available.

GONYEA: As for the timing of yesterday's speech...

HALL: He's doing it now, trying to get as much attention and, you know, sort of make it old news as early as he can, so that then he'll then be able to better to shape the agenda for the Republican primaries.

GONYEA: But it won't go away.

HALL: It's definitely not going away.

GONYEA: Romney knows that. And he also knows it's a long campaign. And as a veteran of the '08 race, he knows the importance of trying to set the terms of the dialogue.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Ann Arbor.

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