Is Romneycare a Success or a Failure?

Don’t ask Politico

If you’re looking for a news story that exemplifies what so many people find both engaging and infuriating about Politico, look no further than this piece about the continuing fallout for Mitt Romney of the health-care law he spearheaded in 2006 as governor of Massachusetts.

Like the Obama administration’s health-care overhaul that’s anathema to conservatives, Romney’s law is based on an individual mandate. That means that should Romney run for president in 2012, as is likely, he’ll be wide open to attacks from his primary rivals that he favors the “Obamacare” approach. Politico reports that some conservatives are advising Romney to deal with this problem by admitting his mistake and apologizing.

It’s an interesting story, and it may have even have succeeded in winning the morning, getting widespread pickup online. But I kept waiting for a key piece of information: Has the Massachusetts law been a success? And that information never came. The closest we got was a Romney aide asserting that it has been, which tells us very little.

Of course, the merits of the law aren’t the main focus of the story. From a political standpoint, it’s no doubt true that the similarities between the two laws present a huge problem for Romney in the GOP primary. But surely the empirical evidence at least deserves a mention somewhere in the story, since it would let us assess whether the (assumed) stance of the Republican primary electorate is anchored by evidence, or whether it’s more of a knee-jerk ideological reaction.

Even if you only care about this on the political level—as Politico does—you’d still want to know something about the Massachusetts law’s outcome. After all, if Romney did somehow manage to capture the GOP nomination, his chances in the general would surely be affected by the success or not of his signature policy achievement. And is it totally crazy to think that some Republican primary voters might also be interested?

As it happens, there’s no simple answer on the question of the law’s impact. It has unarguably raised the number of Massachusetts citizens with health-care coverage, and has reduced out-of-pocket costs for many. But it hasn’t reduced overall costs, and in a lengthy series for CJR, Trudy Lieberman has raised questions about the law’s impact on small businesses and low-income workers, among others.

But the point remains: there’s no attempt in the piece to even consider any of this, because the story, like so many others by Politico, contains no independent frame of reference outside of what the political actors are saying. The issue of whether these actors are worth listening to for any reasons other than politics becomes not just secondary, but non-existent. It would be hard to conceive of a more destructive way of thinking about journalism.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.