WASHINGTON — So much for Mitt Romney escaping health care.
Reminders of the Republican presidential candidate's signature achievement as Massachusetts governor — a sweeping state health care overhaul — now are everywhere. And Democrats and liberals — from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to President Barack Obama to party faithful in Congress — are making sure everyone knows that Romney's requirement that all people have health insurance was the basis of the federal mandate that the Supreme Court just upheld as a tax.
"Congress followed Massachusetts' lead," Ginsburg wrote in the landmark decision. By design or not, she ended up giving Democrats ammunition against Romney.
Romney has spent much of the presidential campaign shying away from talking about the law he signed as governor and that Obama used as a blueprint for his national health care plan. Both measures require individuals to have health insurance, mandate that businesses offer healthcare to their employees and provide subsidies or exemptions for people who can't afford it. Both laws also impose penalties on people who can afford health insurance but decide not to buy coverage.
The Supreme Court's ruling Thursday highlighted those similarities.
Mindful of them, Romney long has sought to justify his position: He defends the Massachusetts law but says he would repeal Obama's national version. The Republican also has tried to explain away comparisons between the two measures by telling audiences he would have been happy to help the president write a better law.
Obama "does me great favor by saying I was the inspiration," Romney has said. "If that was the case, why didn't you call me? Why didn't you ask me what was wrong?"
Since the court's ruling, the Republican has taken care not to mention his state law. He left it out of his statement Thursday in response to the Supreme Court ruling and didn't bring it up when he talked about health care at a private fundraiser Friday in New York.
"What happened yesterday calls for greater urgency, I believe, in the election," Romney told donors. "I think people recognize that if you want to replace Obamacare you've got to replace President Obama."
In the day since the ruling, GOP officials have criticized Obama by pointing out the Supreme Court's determination that the requirement that all individuals carry health insurance is a tax. But in using that to cast Obama as a tax-raiser, Republicans risk turning the focus on their candidate. The state law Romney signed includes a similar penalty for people who don't buy insurance.
Democrats have been hammering him on this point, citing a 2009 opinion piece in which Romney wrote that Massachusetts "established incentives for those who were uninsured to buy insurance." In the piece, he acknowledged that the requirement amounted to a tax: "Using tax penalties, as we did . encourages 'free riders' to take responsibility for themselves."
Perhaps past statements like that are why Romney has been careful not to emphasize the court's characterization of Obama's mandate as a tax.During the primary, Romney struggled to distance himself from the law partly because he risked stoking longtime criticism that he is willing to change his core beliefs for political gain.
"I'm not going to change my positions by virtue of being in a presidential campaign," Romney told Fox News in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses. "What we did was right for the people of Massachusetts."