Eh. It’s one line from an old New Republic story referencing a Republican bill that didn’t even pass, so who knows how much Romney knew about it at the time. Did he realize there was a mandate in it? If he did, was the mandate one of the things he had reservations about? Here’s the full excerpt via Dave Weigel:

The question about Romney is where he would stand in Congress’s internecine battles. Would he side with Republicans such as John Chafee who have tried to develop constructive alternatives to Democratic legislation or with Republicans such as Phil Gramm and Newt Gingrich who have been willing to paralyze Congress for the sake of embarrassing the Clinton administration? Romney has indicated that he would side with the moderate wing. He endorsed the crime bill and refused to back Gingrich’s jejune “Contract with America.” He told me he would have backed Chafee’s health care bill. “I’m willing to vote for things that I am not wild with,” he said.

Assuming Romney knew that Chafee’s bill included a mandate, his willingness to support it at the time undermines his studious ass-covering of late in distinguishing between state mandates a la RomneyCare, which of course are fine, and federal mandates, which are unconstitutional. But then, Romney circa 1994 was still more than a decade away from changing his mind about abortion. It’s no secret that he was more of a centrist when he ran against Ted Kennedy for Senate; if you’re willing to accept his pro-life conversion later, then in theory you’re willing to accept his evolution on the question of whether a national health-insurance mandate is constitutionally copacetic.

Lefty Greg Sargent digs up another, far more recent quote from Romney about the mandate:

ROMNEY: I’m a federalist. I don’t believe in applying what works in one state to all states if different states have different circumstances…Now, I happen to like what we did. I think it’s a good model for other states. Maybe not every state but most, and so what I’d do at the federal level is give every state the same kind of flexibility we got from the federal government as well as some carrots and sticks to actually get all their citizens insured. And I think a lot of states will choose what we did. I wouldn’t tell them they have to do our plan…

MR. RUSSERT: So if a state chose a mandate, it wouldn’t bother you?

MR. ROMNEY: I’d think it’s a terrific idea. I think you’re going to find when it’s all said and done, after all these states that are the laboratories of democracy, get their chance to try their own plans, but those who follow the path that we pursued will find it’s the best path, and we’ll end up with a nation that’s taken a mandate approach.

That’s from the December 16, 2007 broadcast of “Meet the Press,” shortly before the GOP primaries began. So he was against federal mandates — and openly in favor of state ones — even then, despite the fact that it wasn’t a radioactive issue on the right at the time. In fact, as many of you will no doubt vividly remember, he was sufficiently unabashed in his support of mandates in principle to have copped to it in an ABC primary debate; skip ahead to around 0:40 of the clip below to relive the precious memory. All of which is to say that this sort of thing is already priced into his political stock. If you don’t trust him today because he was to the left of Scott Brown in 1994, then his tepid support for Chafee’s bill at the time will only confirm your inclination. If you’ve already forgiven him for his pro-choice ways at the time and his cheerleading for state mandates during the last campaign, then his position on Chafee’s bill probably won’t trouble you. This is Romney’s problem in a nutshell, at least with the base — people’s minds are already made up, one way or another. If he wins the nomination, it’ll be by appealing to Republicans who are less ideologically invested than the grassroots and who are thus unlikely to care what he thought of an obscure bill that collapsed 17 years ago.

Incidentally, he’s got a sneak preview of tomorrow’s big speech posted at USA Today this afternoon. At one point he writes, “Some states might pass a plan like the one we did in Massachusetts, while others will choose an altogether different route” — but nowhere in the piece is the M-word mentioned. Compare that to the quote from 2007 that Sargent is highlighting today.