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Lost in debate over cancer ad: Romney has no plan to cover the Soptics


Mitt Romney has found what he thinks is an effective line of attack lately: hammering President Obama for an anti-Bain that ad Romney says goes too far. It's no surprise that, despite the credulity of some in the press, the GOP charge is bogus. But buried beneath the campaign controversy is a larger point about the policy differences between the two candidates—and it's even more of a problem for Romney.

On Friday, Romney's campaign issued a press release with the breathless headline, "DAY ELEVEN: OBAMA WHITE HOUSE THROWS FULL SUPPORT BEHIND DISGRACEFUL AD." The ad in question is the now-infamous video produced for the web, but never actually aired on TV, by the pro-Obama group Priorities USA, featuring Joe Soptic. Soptic tells the heart-wrenching story of how he and his family lost their health insurance after the steel plant he worked for, owned by Bain Capital, was closed. After that his wife developed cancer, and avoided getting treatment because of the cost. By the time she went to the hospital it was too late. 

Romney and other Republicans have been demanding that Obama disavow the ad, and they insist he is responsible for its contents, even though Priorities USA is a Super PAC legally prohibited from coordinating with the Obama campaign. Last week the Romney campaign also released an ad called "America Deserves Better," attacking Obama for the Soptic ad. "What does it say about a president's character when his campaign tries to use the tragedy of a woman's death for political gain?" asks the announcer. 

Many in the press have echoed Romney's complaints. They note that Soptic's wife actually had another job from which she drew her primary insurance. She lost that job between the time that Soptic got laid off and when she developed cancer. Jonathan Karl of ABC News called the Priorities USA spot, "the Single Most Outrageous Ad Of The Campaign," while CNN's Erin Burnett labeled it "just plain wrong." 

But it isn't. The fact remains that Soptic's wife drew secondary insurance from his job, and if he had not been laid off she would have been insured. Insofar as an employer can be blamed for an employee lacking insurance after losing their job, Bain is responsible. 

There's a bigger problem with the ad, though: It relies on the absurd premise that employers are responsible for retaining all of their employees indefinitely so as to make sure they and their families are insured. But as long as we have a system in which people are dependent on their job for their health insurance, it's hard to see a way around that.

There's a way out of this. The liberal, moral and sensible take on health insurance is that everyone in our society, regardless of employment status, ought to have health insurance, so that if they get cancer they can receive treatment. The real lesson of Soptic's ordeal is not that Mitt Romney is a bad person because his company laid people off. It's that Romney would be a bad president because he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which would make insurance accessible to people like Soptic and his wife, whether or not they're working. 

Ironically, it was Romney's campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, who made that argument in response to the ad. "If people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney's health care plan, they would have had health care," she observed on Fox News. This is quite true. You know how else they would have been covered? If they lived anywhere in America after the ACA takes effect. 

But Republicans hate the ACA, and so Saul's statement was actually considered a massive gaffe. "About the only thing more stupid in terms of building bridges with the right would be to say something nice about fetal stem cell research," wrote Red State's Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative blogger.

And so the only logical response to Obama's ad was buried on the right. Meanwhile Romney continues to whine, despite the fact that his campaign itself has cut viciously misleading ads, and has used the exact same defense as to why he is not responsible for the work of conservative Super PACs. 

So the ad was neither as unfair as its critics contend, nor was its attack on Bain actually relevant to Romney's presidential qualifications. But the fact that Romney has no plan to protect families like the Soptics from losing their insurance is a real problem. That's the argument Priorities USA should have made. 


Ben Adler is a contributing writer for The Nation and federal policy correspondent for Next American City.