Romney's Federalism Tightrope

By Mike Dorf

During last week's Republican Presidential debate, Mitt Romney tried to pin Rick Perry down on Social Security.  Because Perry had written in his book that Social Security was (in his view) constitutionally dubious, Romney argued that Perry must want to eliminate Social Security.  Perry parried Romney's thrust with a the following Texas two-step:

1) Social Security has been on the books for 70 years so it's a fait accompli (a "slam dunk" in the non-Frenchified world of Perry-speak) that won't be taken away from current recipients and those nearing retirement; but 2) For the long term, we ought to rethink Social Security, and one way to do so would be to take responsibility for old-age public pensions away from the federal government, and handing it over to the States.

At that point, Romney announced that he thought it would be better to leave Social Security as a federal program.

As I noted in my blog post on the Romney-Perry exchange last week, I thought that Perry did better atmospherically.  I assume that typical Republican primary voters (like voters more generally) were not following the details of the argument but were instead seeing who seemed more personable and who connected better with their values.  Certainly for the Tea Party audience, that was Perry.  Post-debate pontificators have argued that Romney's argument will play better with the more moderate general electorate.  I don't doubt that, but I do want to take this opportunity to ask whether Romney has a consistency problem.

Romney's website advocates repeal of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and its replacement with a system of block grants to states to engage in experimentation with respect to funding health care for the poor and the uninsured.  That's obviously the right move for Romney politically.  Having signed the Massachusetts law on which the federal PPACA is pretty closely modeled, Romney has to argue that he's not being an opportunist in now opposing the latter.  Rather, health care is a state responsibility, he says, so that the Massachusetts approach may work for Massachusetts but it shouldn't be imposed on other states.

But how does Romney reconcile his view that Social Security should be a federal program with his view that Medicaid and providing for the uninsured should be state programs?  One possibility might be that Social Security is simply a matter of collecting money and paying out checks, which can be accomplished with a one-size-fits-all federal program, but that health care is a much more complex good, for which one needs more state-by-state variation.  That's at least a prima facie plausible claim, but it has one enormous problem: Romney does not in fact advocate converting all federal health insurance programs into state programs.

In particular, Romney appears perfectly comfortable leaving Medicare a federal responsibility, as it is now.  The word "Medicare" does not appear at all on the health care section of his website.  Romney's website does discuss Medicare under the heading of "fiscal responsibility," where he advocates unspecified "reforms" of entitlements, including Medicare, while assuring voters that these reforms "should not reduce benefits for current seniors."

Accordingly, it is nearly impossible to resist the conclusion that Romney's opposition to the PPACA is in fact purely opportunistic. Romney's embrace of states' rights includes a rule-swallowing exception for the gigantic federal programs that are popular among seniors and the middle-class.

Whether Romney's lack of principle on these issues will harm him politically remains to be seen.  Voters generally do not place a lot of weight on principled federalism. If they support a position, they tend to support it at the federal and state level, and if they oppose it, they tend to oppose it everywhere.  So perhaps Romney will be able to walk this tightrope after all.