Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting President Obama, released a much-discussed ad that implies Bain Capital is to blame for the death of the wife of a laid-off steelworker. I think the ad goes too far, given that Joe Soptic’s wife died five years after Bain closed his plant and that she had - though later lost - her own health insurance — for a time — after he lost his job. It’s true that uninsured people are less likely to survive cancer. But the circumstances of her illness are so unclear, even in Mr. Soptic’s telling, that there is no way to determine whether she would have died if he hadn’t been fired.
The ad doesn’t say outright that Mitt Romney is to blame for this woman’s death. It’s meant to dramatize that decisions like the one Bain made to lay off Soptic have long-term consequences. But on Wednesday, the Romney camp responded to the ad in a way that makes this whole dust-up important: “If people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health-care plan, they would have had health care,” spokeswoman Andrea Saul said on Fox News.
Conservatives are apoplectic. They think this has given the Obama team a big opening to remake its case about Obamacare - and they’re right. The Romney campaign seems to be claiming that government-established universal health care is the answer to what to do about people who lack insurance. That is Obama’s argument for Obamacare. The Romney team will argue that it favors only state-based insurance mandates to achieve universal coverage. That’s true. But this debate is occurring in the context of a presidential race, and something approaching universal health care is the law of the land. As president, however, Romney would take it away from people like the Soptics without specifying what he would replace it with.
Even if this ad makes unsupportable charges, and even if you think there’s nothing objectionable about Bain’s conduct, the ad dramatizes a larger story. There is a straightforward difference of opinion between the presidential candidates over the degree to which the federal government should intervene to protect people like Ms. Soptic. Obama believes in aggressive federal action to cushion the blow of market outcomes like the one that hit the Soptics with such force. Romney - even though his campaign has said universal health care is the right answer in cases like Ms. Soptic’s — is promising to roll back government protections for such families. Whatever you think of the ad, that’s the more important argument to be having.