"If I were to get into a race against Barack Obama and he and I were to debate each other, the differences between our [health] plans would be as stark and dramatic as you could imagine. It would be like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
That's what Mitt Romney told me last week when I asked about the difference between Romneycare in Massachusetts and Obamacare in America.
Romney just released "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," a policy tome in which the former Massachusetts governor offers his perspective on health care, among other things. In it, Romney recalls being admonished by a friend that "if [you] really want to help people, find a way to get everyone health insurance."
Romney believed that was impossible because he'd have to raise taxes to get it done. After a year of review and an epiphany that everyone was indeed receiving coverage in emergency rooms, he realized that "if we could get our hands on that money ... the cost of insuring everyone in the state might not be as expensive as I had feared."
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He ultimately got the deal done, working closely with U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, with whom he appeared at a signing ceremony in April 2006.
Fast-forward to 2012. Romney is arguably the Republican front-runner. But to secure the nomination, will he ultimately run on, or away from, his gubernatorial record on health care?
The footage of the former governor and the Liberal Lion at the signing ceremony won't sit well with tea party activists who have cornered the market on passion and will be a force in the GOP primaries. Especially when they hear the similarities between the Obama and Romney initiatives: Each fashioned a government solution to the problem of the uninsured, both provided universal coverage, utilized exchanges, offered a subsidy to those who cannot afford coverage, and included no opt-out provision.
No wonder when I spoke with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last week she called the Massachusetts bill a "template" for the federal plan.
Romney refuses to concede that. He thinks the comparison unfair and points to the fact that his was a state solution (as opposed to a federal one), and that he got it done without raising taxes. Will that be too nuanced for activists who come out of their homes on the health-care vote? Time will tell.
"I would point out that we solved matters on a state basis, that we did not raise taxes, that we don't have price controls, that we didn't cut Medicare, and that our plan was approved on a bipartisan basis. Of 200 legislators, only two voted no," Romney told me last week. "So what [Obama] did was a stark difference, and I think the American people are rejecting Obamacare."
Moving forward, it would appear that Romney's health-care record will join the list of attributes that served him well as a state's chief executive that he'd sooner forget in a national campaign.
While running for the Senate in 1994, Romney said he believed abortion should be "safe and legal" and that we should "sustain and support" Roe v. Wade. During his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, he pledged to "preserve and protect a woman's right to choose." Two years later, a personal epiphany led him to begin opposing abortion rights.
Another change of heart occurred in regard to same-sex relationships. The same Mitt Romney who said during the 1994 campaign that the gay community "needs more support from the Republican Party" filed a lawsuit in support of placing an anti-gay marriage amendment on his home state's ballot in 2008.
Of course, he's not alone in deviating rightward when assessing the national playing field. The bias in favor of conservatives in the GOP nomination process has caused others to do likewise. Just look at John McCain, now facing his first serious primary challenge from the right, who suddenly shed the label that made him a media darling and an insurgent threat to George W. Bush in 2000. "I never considered myself a maverick," he recently said in a Newsweek interview.
Romney has an alternative. Instead of adapting his views to the process of running for president, he could stand his ground and instead adapt the process itself. He could today declare his support for reorganizing the primary election calendar so it features states with more moderate tendencies earlier in the process. Or he could advocate for regional primaries -- which would entail dividing the 50 states into five geographical sections, each of which would vote every three weeks.
He could also call for a return to a system where party officials play a more pronounced role in determining nominees. The goal? Temper the relative conservatism of primary voters with the perspective of party elders free to support the candidate they believe has the best chance to win a general election.
Of course, the latter would likely risk riling voters, especially the party activists who already deeply distrust the Washington establishment. But if successful, Romney could embrace his moderate instincts -- making him a far more formidable opponent in the fall.
Contact Smerconish, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, via www.mastalk.com.