Santorum Gives Away GOP Game On Health Care

January 27, 2012 1:55 pm ET — Walid Zafar

To hear the Republican candidates speak about the Affordable Care Act, you'd think that the Obama administration and congressional Democrats had enacted something similar to a Soviet five-year plan, a ruinous initiative that will soon take America off the cliff and towards the hell that is Canada and Western Europe.

But during last night's GOP presidential debate in Jacksonville, Florida, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum inadvertently let the cat out the bag: The fight over the Affordable Care Act isn't about the merits of the legislation, but about ideology and trying to win the election. After former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney defended his record on health care, he was rebuked by Santorum, who pointed out that if Romney wins the nomination, he's going to have to claim that the approach doesn't work — a task that will be nearly impossible if he keeps on telling the truth about the success of the plan he signed into law in the Bay State. In other words, Romney's admission that "top-down government-run medicine" worked in Massachusetts weakens the argument that "top-down government-run medicine" won't work on a national level.

SANTORUM: What Governor Romney just said is that government-run top-down medicine is working pretty well in Massachusetts and he supports it. Now, think about what that means

ROMNEY: That's not what I said.

SANTORUM: —going up against Barack Obama, who you are going to claim, well, top-down government-run medicine on the federal level doesn't work and we should repeal it. And he's going to say, wait a minute, Governor. You just said that top-down government-run medicine in Massachusetts works well. Folks, we can't give this issue away in this election. It is about fundamental freedom.

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Last year, it seemed like it was almost certain that the health care reform bill would be a big issue in the upcoming presidential race between the eventual GOP contender and the president. But with each debate, it's become more and more evident that the leading Republicans are not quite comfortable fighting the battle. Romney's baggage is well-known, but there's a lot of evidence that the other candidates have also been effectively neutered when it comes to the issue. Newt Gingrich, for instance, had recently championed the idea of an individual mandate. And what about Santorum? It turns out he too supported the idea of a mandate at one point in his long political career.

As Romney has pointed out, the core idea of a mandate is based on the conservative-friendly notion of individual responsibility. The Heritage Foundation, which is now championing an effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act because they see the mandate as unconstitutional, was one of the first groups to propose a mandate in the late '80s. Now, they've flipped on the issue. What was once the conservative alternative to universal health care is now the express lane on the road to serfdom.

Of course, it isn't anything of the sort. But as Santorum pointed out last night, claiming that it's terrible is a much better strategy for Republicans than admitting that it actually works.

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