Neil Macdonald: The tortured logic of America's health-care debate

For years, Neil Macdonald writes, Mitt Romney has been in the rationally uncomfortable position of criticizing Barack Obama's health-care bill as it is based on what Romney himself signed into law in Massachusetts in 2006. Now, the distinctions are becoming ever more absurd.

The venerable John Turner didn't leave much of a political legacy during his brief time as prime minister in the early 1980s.

But he did coin one term I've marvelled at since the first time I heard it: "Bullshit Theatre."

That was Turner's private description of Question Period, the daily 45-minute dramatics during which opposition MPs pretend to be consumed with outrage, and government ministers pretend to be shocked at the triviality of the questions being put to them.

Turner was absolutely right: Question Period was and is largely a condescending parody. Of course the same might be said of just about everything the national political parties in Canada and the United States churn out these days.

If all the political world is a stage, Bullshit Theatre is the longest-running production of our lifetimes, and Mitt Romney is the latest leading man.

Watching him lately, you almost have to wince with pity.

For years, he's been in the rationally uncomfortable position of criticizing President Barack Obama's health-care bill, widely known here as Obamacare.

Uncomfortable because Obamacare's principles are modelled directly on the Massachusetts health-care law widely known here as Romneycare, which he signed into law as governor in 2006.

But Romney is also about to be the presidential nominee of the Republican party, whose doctrine states that Obamacare, with its "individual mandate" obliging every American to buy some sort of health insurance, is a socialist assault on personal liberty.

How he must loathe the videotape archives of American television newsrooms, which contain old footage of him saying all sorts of things he must now wish he'd never said.

Among them: I'm a moderate, I'm for gay rights, I'm for a woman's right to choose and, of course, "I like mandates."

He actually uttered those last three words verbatim in 2008, not long before Obamacare was invented. He was referring directly to the individual mandate in the Massachusetts health-care law.

Pretzel logic

Since then,Romney has pretzelled himself trying to square his attacks on Obamacare with his creation of Romneycare.

An individual mandate is a mandate, except when it's not. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney explains why he doesn't like Obamacare. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

It was appropriate for a state government to create such a system, he has said, but it's an abuse when created by Congress.

That argument sounded tortured and somewhat ridiculous even to many members of his own party, but it was his line and he stuck to it.

Then along came the Supreme Court.

On June 28, it ruled that the federal government does indeed have the right to impose individual mandates. But its reasoning surprised just about everyone.

The individual mandate, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the 5-4 majority, is a tax, and the government has the right to impose taxes.

Many leading Republicans were disgusted by this view. Some of them have denounced Roberts, an appointee of George W. Bush, as a traitor for siding with the court's four reliably left-wing judges.

But at the same time, they saw an opportunity to use the ruling in a new Bullshit Theatre production.

"Obamacare becomes Obamatax!" announced emails that almost immediately began pouring in from GOP spin doctors. "The Supreme Court has spoken!"

Obama, they pointed out, promised in 2008 that he would not raise taxes on any American making less than $200,000, and the Supreme Court just ruled his individual mandate is a tax on just about everyone, therefore he's a big-taxing taxer, and a lying liar to boot.

More pretzel logic

The one small remaining problem with this tactic, of course, is Romneycare.

If Obamacare's individual mandate made Obama a big tax-imposer, what exactly does Romneycare make Romney?

The Republican candidate's first answer came from Eric Fehrnstrom, one of his top advisers.

"He disagrees with the court's ruling that the mandate was a tax," Fehrnstrom said on Monday, referring to his boss.

Fehrnstrom's logic was understandable: It's bad enough to have Romneycare shackled to your ankle all the way through an election campaign. The last thing the Republican candidate for the White House needs is to implicitly acknowledge having once been the author of a great big tax hike himself.

Trouble is, Fehrnstrom's message had Romney disagreeing with his own party's new Obamatax sloganeering.

So there was Romney on CBS, back on the big stage, with a new script.

"The Supreme Court has the final word," said the ex-governor. "And their final word is that Obamacare is a tax. So it's a tax."

The interviewer then had the presence of mind to ask whether that means Romneycare was a tax, too.

Actually, Romney argued, "Massachusetts's mandate was a mandate … was described that way by the legislature and by me. And so it stays as it was."

With me so far?


To sum up: Obamacare is a tax, because the Supreme Court says it was, and Republicans oppose any new taxes.

Romneycare, on the other hand, might be identical to Obamacare, but it's not a tax, because the Supreme Court didn't specifically say it was.

I can only imagine John Turner watching all this and cackling in that rapid-fire laugh reporters used to love to imitate.

Republicans aren't laughing, though. Late last week, the Republican-supporting, Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal weighed in and called Romney's campaign "confused" and "politically dumb."

U.S. President Barack Obama campaigning in Ohio last week, everyone's friend. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Now, none of this is to say that Obama and the Democrats aren't an enthusiastic troupe in Bullshit Theatre. They are.

And while the two candidates might not be terribly comfortable addressing the legal realities of their respective health-care laws, individual mandates won't be the issue that decides which of them will win in November.

The jobless rate and home prices will play a big role in determining that.

So, the president finished up the week in Ohio, denouncing the shallow nature of American politics in one breath, while telling voters there he's the true champion of the average working Joe in the next.

This from a president who has raced to the rescue of corporate America with hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout money, while leaving the vast middle class unbailled-out and sinking in post-2008 economic quicksand.

Mitt Romney's campaign, meanwhile, has a new ad out, replete with the sort of language modern candidates are much more comfortable spoon-feeding voters:

"Everywhere I go I meet people who represent the best of America. They're hopeful, determined, hardworking and proud," Romney tells the camera.

"Those Americans are quiet heroes, raise strong families, run our factories and they dream big dreams. Our campaign will carry a simple message: the greatest days are yet ahead."

Never mind all this specific economic stuff. Lights down, fade music, exit stage left.