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Romney the contortionist

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012 4:58 a.m. CDT

To a skeptic, the most remarkable aspect of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has been how so flexible a politician can represent so dogmatic a party. Contemporary Republicanism is ideological to its core.

Everybody who watched the GOP primary debates between Mitt and the Seven Dwarves (or were there nine? I forget) understands that there’s a black-and-white party line on almost every imaginable topic from tax policy to global warming.

Romney, on the other hand, appears to have no firm convictions at all. How anybody purports to know what the GOP candidate actually thinks about any issue other than the size of his own offshore bank accounts beggars my poor imagination. That most Republicans have temporarily persuaded themselves to trust him reflects mainly their fear and loathing of President Obama.

Equally remarkable, however, is the way the Obama campaign has let Romney get away with it. How can his evasiveness not be an issue? For that matter, how can it not be THE issue? Early on, a strategic decision was apparently made to depict the GOP candidate as the “severely conservative” politician he affected to be during the Republican primaries.

Well, it ain’t working. So many and so various are the GOP candidate’s self-contradictions and reinventions that the proverbial “low information” citizens who appear to constitute much of the swing vote are pretty much free to imagine any Mitt Romney that strikes their fancy.

Maybe it’s unpatriotic to say so, but an awful lot of people who manage their personal affairs competently enough simply refuse to understand the most elementary facts when they’re part of a political argument.

Sometimes you have to tell them a story. It helps if that story connects to something close to home; something they’ve had to think about realistically in their own lives.

Such as, what happens if you lose your health insurance and then get sick? Millions live in fear of this every day.

CBS News’ Scott Pelley recently asked Romney a simple question on 60 Minutes: “Does the government have a responsibility to provide health care to the 50 million Americans who don’t have it today?”

“Well, we do provide care for people who don’t have insurance,” Romney allowed. “If someone has a heart attack, they don’t sit in their apartment and die. We pick them up in an ambulance, and take them to the hospital, and give them care. And different states have different ways of providing for that care.”

“That’s the most expensive way to do it,” Pelley observed. Indeed, government figures show the average emergency room visit costs $922, vs. $199 for a doctor’s office visit.

Nor is it free. People do know that. Under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act signed by President Reagan, hospitals must treat sick and injured patients regardless of their ability to pay. A civilized society can do no less; much less one that hopes to head off deadly epidemics.

But the law doesn’t say the hospital can’t perform what’s cynically called a “wallet biopsy” and send you a bill. Indeed, some states allow hospitals to hire collection agencies, garnish wages and seize assets in pursuit of payment. For this reason, many people stay away until they’re at death’s door.

Others abuse the privilege and stick the rest of us with the bill.

Back in 2006, the politician Bill Clinton calls “Moderate Mitt” recognized the problem. He wrote a Wall Street Journal column objecting to the way deadbeats game the system.

“By law, emergency care cannot be withheld,” he wrote. “Why pay for something you can get free? Of course, while it may be free for them, everyone else ends up paying the bill, either in higher insurance premiums or taxes.”

Writing in Time, Kate Pickert catches Moderate Mitt as recently as 2008, explaining the conservative origins of “Romneycare” in Massachusetts.

“They shouldn’t be allowed just to show up at the hospital and say somebody else should pay for me, so we said no more free riders ... We said if you can afford insurance, then either have the insurance or get a health savings account, pay your own way, but no more free ride ... I think it’s the conservative approach — to make sure that people who can afford insurance are getting it at their expense, not at the expense of the taxpayers or the government. That, I consider a step towards socialism.”

Ah, but then came “Obamacare,” basically Romneycare with a less expensive per capita price tag. Yesterday’s conservative solution turned into today’s Bolshevism. Severely Conservative Mitt played along.

So what would Romney do if elected?

Who knows? To paraphrase the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: You can never encounter the same Mitt Romney twice. Whatever he says today, he’ll say something different tomorrow.

Here’s the question President Obama should be asking: Would you buy a used health insurance policy from this man?

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Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.

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