ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Mitt Romney tried to use one speech Thursday to address two of his biggest electoral liabilities: a reputation for being a political chameleon and the disdain conservatives hold for the healthcare law he signed as governor of Massachusetts.
Romney, in his first major public appearance since setting up his presidential exploratory committee, defied political expectations and doubled down on his support for the Massachusetts healthcare law and all of its political warts.
In his speech at the University of Michigan’s Cardiovascular Center, he acknowledged that it might be to his benefit to apologize for the plan, but noted that he wouldn’t do so.
“I presume that a lot of folks would think that if I did that, it would be good for me politically,” he said. “But there’s only one problem with that: It wouldn’t be honest.
“I, in fact, did what I think was right for the people of my state,” he added.
In one fell swoop, Romney took on both Republican primary voters, who demanded that he back off his healthcare plan, and Democrats, who have gladly cast Romney as a flimsy Republican who was willing to shift positions for political convenience.
Romney seemed cognizant of the way the politics had shifted on his healthcare law, noting that what had been seen as an asset during his 2008 presidential campaign was now seen as a liability.
“You’ll note that despite the fact that it’s gone from being seen as an asset to a liability, the plan is the same,” he said.
The former governor spoke in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, in the state where he was raised. Romney spoke to a half-full auditorium of supporters at the school’s Cardiovascular Center, where he shed a tie for a more casual button down-and-blazer look.
He didn’t use a teleprompter, but gave a PowerPoint presentation on the subject.
Romney appeared at ease after the speech and shifted quickly into campaign mode, asking a young supporter whether he had been able to find employment post-graduation and posing for pictures and handshakes with other supporters. He dodged questions from the media, including one about an editorial in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal savaging his healthcare plan.
In many ways, the Romney speech suggested that his campaign had resigned itself to accepting that it couldn’t escape criticism on the healthcare plan, which he had championed during his time in office and during his first campaign for governor.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) was the first Republican rival to pounce on the speech, condemning Romney for “his work to institute the precursor to national socialized medicine,” though the attack didn’t seem to bother Romney’s aides, who declined to respond.
The speech served as much as a policy speech as a major political address. Romney took strides to undercut Democrats’ criticism of him as a political shape-shifter who was willing to pivot his positions to win votes.
It also made the case to conservatives, many of whom retain lingering suspicions of Romney’s political instincts, that Romney’s reforms were a noble, if imperfect, attempt at healthcare reform that differs substantially from President Obama’s.
Romney sought to couch his explanations in conservative rhetoric, calling his decision to include an individual mandate — the requirement that individuals own health insurance, a lynchpin to both Romney’s and Obama’s plans — a move by the state government to force “personal responsibility” in healthcare, and prevent individuals from depending on government support for healthcare.
“Our plan was a state solution to a state problem, and [Obama’s] was a power grab by federal government to put in place a one-size-fits-all plan,” he said.
The individual mandate provision has given Romney the most headaches with conservatives.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the prominent conservative lawmaker who backed Romney in 2008, has insisted that Romney admit the Massachusetts healthcare reform measure was a “mistake.” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have each signed onto legal filings challenging the individual-mandate provision in Obama’s healthcare law.
The speech was reminiscent of one Romney delivered in 2007 about his Mormon faith, which sought to address a major obstacle to his candidacy: social conservatives’ concerns about his religion.
That speech came a month before Iowa’s caucuses — by that point, late in the campaign cycle. Thursday’s healthcare speech, by contrast, was designed to come before the campaign has begun in earnest. Romney hasn’t formally announced his presidential bid, hasn’t stepped foot on a debate stage, and the first primary votes are months away.
By addressing the issue now, Romney’s hoping to ensure it doesn’t sink his chances of winning the Republican nomination next winter.
Democrats had expected Romney to switch positions on the mandate, even going so far as to release a mock PowerPoint presentation for Romney that had predicted another shift by the former governor, who has been accused of shifting his positions as the political wind blows.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said at his Thursday briefing that Romney “seems to be running away from some of the goals of his own law,” a criticism the White House and the Democratic party establishment echoed throughout the day.
But Romney’s speech might ultimately disappoint; he said there was no way for him to completely disown the plan.
“Overall, am I proud of the fact that we did our best for our people and got people insured? Absolutely,” he said.
-- This post was originally published at 2:32 p.m. and updated at 8:45 p.m.