Over the weekend, Mike Huckabee won a straw poll for potential 2012 Republican presidential nominees among attendees of the Values Voters Convention. The former Arkansas governor got 29%. Ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin all followed at 12% each. These straw polls don't mean much. Romney won a similar one earlier this summer at the Conservative Political Action Conference -- for the third year in a row.
But while Huckabee is happy winning this little battle on the long slog toward a GOP nomination, he's looking for an early kill in the bigger war. He went after Massachusetts' own health care plan:
Huckabee – without mentioning the name of his former GOP primary rival, Mitt Romney -- cited Massachusetts’ universal health care system as an example of why government-run health care will not work at the national level. Romney signed Massachusetts’ health care system into law in 2006 when he was serving as governor of the commonwealth.
Huckabee pointed to Massachusetts polls showing that a majority of voters say the state’s health care plan hasn’t worked – and has made health care more expensive.
“The average cost nationally for insuring a family of four is $13,000. It’s $20,000 in Massachusetts. It’s going to bankrupt their entire budget,” Huckabee said. “The only thing inexpensive about the Massachusetts health care bill is that you can get a $50 abortion. Frankly, if that’s where we’re headed with the public option and government-run health care, thank you but no thank you -- our wallets and our babies would be better off without it.”
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Huckabee deftly indicts the health plan Romney signed into law on both cost and "values" criteria -- it's too expensive and permits abortion coverage.
Romney fought back:
"This Republican worked to reform health care in my own state," he said. "Not every feature of our plan is perfect, but the lesson it teaches is this: You can get everyone insured, without breaking the bank and without a government option. There is no government option in my Massachusetts reform. The right answer for health care is not more government, it is less government."
While it doesn't answer the abortion problem, this defense is actually more forceful than any Romney presented during the 2008 campaign. Back then, while prominent on the Democratic side (Hillary Clinton was a candidate, after all), health care was somewhat background noise for Republicans who focused on national security and terrorism. Romney tended to distance himself from a policy reform that he championed as governor. He was running in a field which tried to champion small government initiatives following the Bush administration's fall from favor.
Now, in contrast to the plan the Obama administration and Democrats are pushing, the Massachusetts plan looks relatively moderate in comparison. However -- in a warning to reformers, even Massachusetts recently had to pull back on benefits for legal immigrants, thus proving the problem with creating a health-care entitlement.
But this exchange between Huckabee and Romney may prove valuable for Republicans. While Republican members of Congress have introduced their own reform plans, as the minority party they can neither get Democrats to adopt their plans -- or the media to give them fair consideration. It's only with a presidential candidate can GOP health care reform plans get a true airing. Like it or not, Romney's can stand as a jumping off point for future GOP ideas -- perhaps even during the 2010 midterms, .
Let the debate begin!