Poor Rick Santorum could only shrug in frustration when he complained in the Florida debate about the supreme irony of the 2012 presidential race: Republicans made President Obama vulnerable two years ago by demonizing his health-insurance reforms and now they are about to nominate one of two men who cannot effectively use the issue against him.
"Folks," Santorum said, "we can't give this issue away in this election."
That is exactly what they are doing.
If you hate the idea of requiring uninsured people to buy health insurance or pay a penalty, which is the main attack on the health law, then you have to be appalled by Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. They favored, and Romney implemented, more draconian measures than are in Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
It is safe to say that were it not for the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans call "Obamacare," President Obama would be flying pretty high. No, he has not fully repaired the wreckage of the George W. Bush years, except perhaps in foreign affairs, but it was the political disaster of health reform in 2009-10 that brought him down from his post-election popularity and made him assailable. Universal health insurance had enjoyed massive public support, but the confusing and messy fight to get it past a Republican filibuster in the Senate and the nasty advertising campaign against it by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and right-wing groups left the bill and the president who urged its passage unpopular.
The GOP race has come down to Romney, who authored the Massachusetts insurance law that is the template for the Affordable Care Act, and Newt Gingrich, who championed its key provision, the mandate that large businesses and individuals who can afford it buy private health health insurance or pay a penalty.
Listen to Gingrich in a 2005 interview on National Public Radio where he promoted a national law to require people to buy insurance: "Our goal has to be for 100 percent of the country to be in the insurance system."
Both men have finessed the issue in the Republican race by saying they would try to repeal the act if they are elected although they do not offer cogent reasons for doing so.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of Obamacare and Romneycare:
• Romneycare requires people to buy insurance or pay a penalty of up to $1,200 a year. Obamacare will require them to pay a penalty of only $95 in 2014 if they don't purchase insurance. It would go up to $695 a year in 2016.
• Romneycare provides a government subsidy to people who earn less than 300 percent of the poverty line. Obama will help people with family incomes up to 400 percent.
• Romney's law requires all companies with 11 or more employees to make a "reasonable" contribution toward insurance for the workers or pay a penalty of $295 per employee. Obama's law exempts companies with fewer than 50 full-time employees, and if they do not share insurance costs with their workers they will have to pay a penalty of $2,000 per employee.
• Both provide for state exchanges where insurance companies will supply people a range of insurance options. (Republicans blocked that plan in Arkansas. The federal government will set up the exchange for Arkansans.) Both share other big features, like protecting people with pre-existing conditions from being cut off by insurance carriers and allowing children to stay on their parents' policies until they are 26.
Gingrich and Romney talk about their eagerness to debate Barack Obama. Not on health care.
In his 2009 pre-campaign book, Gingrich explains the mandate concept in what would become Obamacare: "Allowing individuals to pass their health costs on to others reinforces the attitude that their health is not their problem and adds to the irresponsible, unhealthy behaviors that bankrupt the current system." There is no more eloquent defense of Obamacare.
Oh, and Santorum? Running for the U.S. Senate in 1994 he called for a federal law like the one sponsored by Republicans that year requiring people to buy health insurance to end the cost shifting. Now he thinks that's socialism.