The most interesting thing about this story isn’t DeMint’s original comments, which are quite tame, but rather the fact that his allies were sufficiently alarmed to reach out to The Hill and produce a quick follow-up article walking them back. So toxic is RomneyCare, apparently, that even Senator Tea Party isn’t willing to handle it without a thick layer of protective rhetoric. How on earth does Mitt win a primary when that’s the case? Even the “true conservative” Superman can’t get near this kryptonite without losing his powers.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) “would never consider” endorsing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for president again in 2012 unless Romney repudiates the health reforms he sought as governor, a source close to DeMint said Thursday…

“It’s obvious Jim was just trying to be nice to the guy he backed over McCain, as many conservatives did in 2008,” the source said. “But he would never consider backing Romney again unless he admits that his Massachusetts healthcare plan was a colossal mistake.”…

DeMint [originally] said:

“One of the reasons I endorsed Romney is his attempts to make private health insurance available at affordable prices. He set the goal that all folks in Massachusetts would have affordable health insurance. By the time it got through the Democratic state legislature, it had all these mandates on it, requirements about what kind of policies would be bought — the same thing that happened up here — instead of getting people insured, it was a government takeover. So I applaud the goal — my goal is to have every American with a private health insurance plan that they can keep throughout their lives. And so, I still admire him for taking on the task, but I think it’s important to recognize that that’s not where we want our healthcare to go. States can compete with different plans, but we shouldn’t have anything like what they did in Massachusetts at the federal level.”

He’s not endorsing the mandate in RomneyCare, he’s just shifting the blame for it from Mitt himself to the Massachusetts legislature. Which, of course, will be Romney’s argument when this comes up in the primaries, along with the boilerplate about federalism and how we shouldn’t have one-size-fits-all health care for 50 different states. Two problems with DeMint’s defense, though. One: Romney knew what he was getting into when he started pushing universal care in the bluest of blue states. New entitlements are born, and then inevitably they grow, especially if they have lots of Democratic “nurses” tending to them. To say that the mandate wasn’t his idea doesn’t excuse that lack of foresight.

Two: Romney hasn’t been shy in the past about defending the mandate. From the Philip Klein piece linked above:

Romney helped craft the basic architecture of the health care plan, and pursued it even though he knew that he was working with an overwhelming Democratic legislature who he knew would override his symbolic line-item vetoes of parts of his bill. He signed the bill with Ted Kennedy at his side, and did so knowing he wasn’t seeking reelection and that it would almost certainly fall on a Democratic governor to implement it. After signing it, Romney did a victory lap — boasting of his accomplishment in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled, “Health Care for Everyone? We Found a Way.” He defended it throughout his last run for president. In a 2007 interview with Fox during his campaign, he said, “We found a way to get everybody in our state, Massachusetts, insured. I like the plan. I think it’s one of the best things we did in my administration.” He’s defended the individual mandate for years on conservative grounds, using the “responsibility” argument that was adopted by Democrats. He even declared in one GOP debate “I like mandates.” So it is simply ignorant to portray Romney as an innocent bystander and blame everything on Democrats.

Romney’s tried to distinguish between federal mandates and state mandates at times, but even that doesn’t really work. For one thing, the right’s objection to being forced to buy insurance doesn’t derive from federalism but from antipathy to government coercion generally. A state legislature handing you a list of things you have to buy wouldn’t fly any better (well, maybe slightly better) than the feds doing it. And as Klein notes, Romney has defended the mandate in the past, even if he wasn’t the guy who came up with the idea. Here’s the video of that “I like mandates” quote to which Klein refers, part of a lovely little highlight reel the DNC dropped on Mitt last year. The key part comes at 45 seconds in. Listen to the question closely, as Romney seems to embrace not just the mandate in RomneyCare but mandates generally — including, perhaps, at the national level. Think you’ll see any Tim Pawlenty ads showcasing this clip?