In 2008, the issue that most dogged Mitt Romney's Republican presidential campaign was abortion. This time around, it has been health care. Now the GOP frontrunner may have to face both headaches at once.
This week, the Bay State's biggest pro-life group launched a ballot initiative to repeal the Obamacare-like health care law Romney signed in 2006. Massachusetts Citizens for Life President Anne Fox says, "It's going to lead to the rationing of care, and that's what makes it a pro-life issue."
So Fox's organization has proposed a referendum question that will allow Massachusetts voters to repeal the individual mandate that is at the heart of the state law and its similarities to Obamacare. Massachusetts Citizens for Life will need to gather 68,911 signatures by November and then another 11,485 signatures by June for the initiative to make the ballot.
But in the meantime, the campaign calls attention to Romney's two biggest liabilities with the Republican base. And nothing better illustrates Romney's gymnastics on the abortion issue than his complicated relationship with Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
It goes all the way back to Romney's first run for public office. In 1994, Citizens for Life endorsed Romney for Senate. His Republican primary opponent, John Lakian, was running to his left on abortion. So was the Democratic incumbent, Ted Kennedy. Romney was pro-choice, but supported parental notification laws, opposed the Freedom of Choice Act, was against taxpayer funding of abortion, and said he would not vote for a federal health care bill that covered abortions.
After getting the Citizens for Life endorsement, Romney subsequently modified or reversed all of these positions. The group's backing was helpful among a subset of Republican voters, but it attracted the kind of attention Romney didn't want in his campaign against Kennedy. "Mitt Romney, stop pretending," demanded NARAL's Kate Michelman. "We need honesty in our public life, not your campaign of deception to conceal your anti-choice views."
Romney said he might be able to back a different version of the Freedom of Choice Act. His adviser Charles Manning told the Boston Herald Romney "supports a federal health care option that includes abortion services, would vote for a law codifying the 1972 [sic] Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion and backs federal funding for abortions as long as states can decide they want the money."
Most bizarrely, Manning even told a newspaper that Massachusetts Citizens for Life had endorsed Romney because he had been pro-choice longer than Ted Kennedy.
"[Kennedy] was pro-life before Roe v. Wade and now he's changed," Manning said to the Boston Globe. "Mitt has always been consistent in his pro-choice position and that's why the group respects him."
After losing to Kennedy, Romney flirted with running for office in Utah -- and also seemed to flirt with becoming pro-life. In 2001, he wrote a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune saying he didn't wish to be called pro-choice. He called abortion "the wrong choice," but conceded "under the law, it is a choice people have." Romney never ended up becoming a candidate in Utah.
Instead Bay State Republicans convinced him to run for governor in Massachusetts. His Democratic opponent, Shannon O'Brien, zinged him on abortion. "Ted Kennedy said it best," she remarked in an October 2002 debate. "Mitt Romney isn't pro-choice, he's not anti-choice, he's multiple choice."
Romney protested, "Let me make this very clear: I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose." So O'Brien brought up his 1994 endorsement by Massachusetts Citizens for Life. Romney denied ever accepting the endorsement, sarcastically asking O'Brien if he wrote them an acceptance letter. "When you say I accepted it, in what way did I accept it, Shannon?" he asked. Massachusetts Citizens for Who?
Three years later, Romney wrote in the Boston Globe, "I am prolife. I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother." This may as well have been the announcement of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Before leaving office as governor, he became a Massachusetts Citizens for Life donor.
Fox is interested in repealing the Massachusetts health care law, not revisiting any of this history or bashing Romney. She defends him against the charge that he is responsible for taxpayer funding of abortion in the commonwealth, pointing out that it was actually the Supreme Judicial Court that mandated such funding when it struck down the Doyle-Flynn law, which was Massachusetts' equivalent of the Hyde Amendment. She is even willing to say it was reasonable to think Romneycare might have worked out better, given the state's low percentage of uninsured before the law took hold.
"We all thought it was going to be good," Fox says. "We really don't fault Romney. We don't fault the legislature." But now is time to look at results, not intentions.
"The fault is that Massachusetts isn't rethinking [the law] now and the federal government is headed down the same path," Fox adds. She opposes Romney's health care law, but not Romney himself.
"If Romney is the nominee against Obama, he's our man," says Fox. But if he doesn't disavow Romneycare, which she calls "the prototype" for the national law, "I think he will hurt his chances of being nominated."
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