In yesterday’s Washington Post, I asked how Mitt Romney would respond to Tim Pawlenty’s “Obamneycare” attack in the GOP debate. The answer is: he didn’t have to. Pawlenty inexplicably backed off and ducked the opportunity to challenge Romney on his healthcare law.
The topic came up early in the debate, when John King asked Romney about Pawlenty’s Obamneycare charge. Romney was ready with a concise and effective explanation of why his law was different from Obamacare:
ROMNEY: You know, let me say a couple things. First, if I’m elected president, I will repeal Obamacare, just as Michele indicated. And also, on my first day in office, if I’m lucky enough to have that office, I will grant a waiver to all 50 states from Obamacare.
Now, there’s some similarities and there are some big differences. Obamacare spends a trillion dollars. If it were perfect—and it’s not perfect, it’s terrible—we can’t afford more federal spending.
Secondly, it raises $500 billion in taxes. We didn’t raise taxes in Massachusetts.
Third, Obamacare takes $500 billion out of Medicare and funds Obamacare. We, of course, didn’t do that.
And, finally, ours was a state plan, a state solution, and if people don’t like it in our state, they can change it. That’s the nature of why states are the right place for this type of responsibility. And that’s why I introduced a plan to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a state-centric program.
Rather than challenge this, and do some damage to the GOP frontrunner he needs to bring down, Pawlenty passed up repeated opportunities to repeat his Obamneycare charge. King did his best to coax it out of him, but to no avail:
KING: Governor, you just heard the governor rebut your characterization, Obamneycare. Why?
PAWLENTY: Well, let me first say to Sylvia, she has put her finger on one of the most important issues facing the country, which is President Obama stood before the nation in 2008 and said he promised to do health care reform focused on cost containment, along with Republicans, he’d do it on a bipartisan basis…
KING: The question—the question, Governor, was, why Obamneycare?
PAWLENTY: That’s right. Well, I’m going to get to that, John.
KING: You have 30 seconds, Governor.
PAWLENTY: Yeah, so we—this is another example of him breaking his promise, and he has to be held accountable. And in order to prosecute the case against President Obama, you have to be able to show that you’ve got a better plan and a different plan. We took a different approach in Minnesota. We didn’t use top-down government mandates and individual requirements from government. We created market alternatives and empowered consumers. I think that’s the way to fix healthcare in the United States of America.
KING: And you don’t want to address why you called Governor Romney’s Obamneycare?
PAWLENTY: Well, the issue that was raised in a question from a reporter was, what are the similarities between the two? And I just cited President Obama’s own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a blueprint or a guide when he designed Obamacare.
KING: But you chose—you say you were asked a question, which is fair enough, but you chose those words. And so one of my questions is, why would you chose those—choose those words maybe in the comfort of a Sunday show studio? Your rival is standing right there. If it was Obamneycare on “Fox News Sunday,” why isn’t it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?
PAWLENTY: It—President Obama is—is the person who I quoted in saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program. He’s the one who said it’s a blueprint and that he merged the two programs. And so using the term “Obamneycare” was a reflection of the president’s comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan.
KING: All right. Governor [Romney], you want to respond to that at all?
ROMNEY: No, just—just to say this, which is my guess is the president is going to eat those words and wish he hasn’t—hadn’t put them out there. And I can’t wait to debate him and say, Mr. President, if, in fact, you did look at what we did in Massachusetts, why didn’t you give me a call and ask what worked and what didn’t? And I would have told you, Mr. President, that what you’re doing will not work. It’s a huge power grab by the federal government. It’s going to be massively expensive, raising taxes, cutting Medicare. It’s wrong for America. And that’s why there’s an outpouring across the nation to say no to Obamacare. And I’m delighted to be able to debate him on that.
This was simply inexplicable. For the first time on Sunday, Pawlenty had managed to separate himself from the pack, coming out with a brilliant line of attack that struck at the heart of his chief rival’s chief vulnerability. He had teed up what might have been the biggest moment of the debate—and then blew it.
Why was Pawlenty unwilling, as King pointed out, to say to Romney’s face what he had said about him from the comfort of a Sunday show? Perhaps it was out of deference to the tradition of “Minnesota nice” in which Minnesotans tend toward polite friendliness, understatement, and an aversion to confrontation. But Minnesota nice isn’t going to put this Minnesotan in the Oval Office. Romney is the clear front-runner. If Pawlenty wants to knock him off his perch, he must—to paraphrase Romney—make him “eat” his healthcare law. He failed last night.