Why the Republicans are committing fratricide

By Ben Adler
May 17, 2011

By Ben Adler
The opinions expressed are his own.

You almost have to feel bad for Mitt Romney. Running for president used to mean that during the Republican primaries you had to disavow positions you had taken — back when you were running in a liberal state, courting the media or acting out of principle — that might offend the national Republican base. So Romney knew that his past life as a Massachusetts moderate would bring him trouble on his previous support for gay rights and abortion rights. He flip-flopped, and managed to mollify at least some of the conservative electorate, while winning the support of much of the GOP establishment, which has long made pragmatic decisions in presidential primaries.

But now Romney has to contend with a new kind of apostasy: having supported what was once a conservative position. For most of the 1990s and 2000s, supporting a health care reform system that requires individuals to buy health insurance was a perfectly acceptable position for a mainstream conservative to hold. It was, indeed, viewed as the market-friendly alternative to the single-payer systems that dominate in other developed democracies. The 1996 Republican presidential nominee, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, supported an individual mandate, an idea that was hatched at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

And indeed in the 2008 campaign, Romney’s record of signing such a law when governor of Massachusetts was not a significant problem for him. When conservative standard-bearer National Review endorsed him it noted that he can “speak with more authority than any of the other Republican candidates about this pressing issue [of health care].”

Yet today “RomneyCare” is widely reviled as a fatal flaw in his record. And his erstwhile friends in the conservative media elite have abandoned him. Last week The Wall Street Journal ran an unusually long editorial excoriating Romney’s health care law and his tortured efforts to explain why he strongly opposes the Affordable Care Act, which largely mimicked the approach on a national level. In fact, the Journal went so far as to suggest that Romney, the current GOP front runner, is not only wrong on health care but that the issue raises serious questions about his fitness to be president.

Romney hoped to silence such criticism by devoting an entire speech on Thursday to the argument he has been making for the last two years: that the Massachusetts plan was good for his state but should not be imposed on other states by the federal government.

It does not seem to have worked. Erick Erickson, the editor of the influential conservative blog, Red State, tweeted, “Having now gone through his speech, we can all start referring to Romney as a ‘former’ Presidential candidate.” National Review ran an editorial denouncing Romney’s speech.

How could this change have happened? To their credit, the editors of National Review did not pretend there is some previously undiscovered high principle at stake. Instead they readily admitted that what is motivating this conservative fratricide is pure politics. “The enactment of Obamacare has raised the stakes on this issue,” they wrote. “It is now of critical importance that Obama’s opponent in 2012 be able to make the case against the health-care law.” Since Republicans have spent the last two years decrying the individual mandate as the onset of totalitarianism they cannot afford to nominate an erstwhile mandate-supporter.

Romney is not the only one to find himself in such a pickle. A number of market-oriented solutions that were embraced by mainstream Republicans in the past became verboten once President Obama proposed them. A cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which was vociferously supported by 2008 Republican nominee John McCain, and more mildly supported by current GOP candidate Tim Pawlenty, is now an unacceptable heresy. Pawlenty, seeking to avoid the fate that has befallen Romney, retracted and abjectly apologized for his past position on cap-and-trade in the first Republican debate. Indeed, this year, for a Republican even to accept that anthropogenic climate change is happening — once a barometer of seriousness — is now an admission best to be avoided.

Newt Gingrich, whose fondness for quirky wonkery has attached him to a number of offbeat policy choices for a Republican, faces a host of similar issues. He supported an individual mandate, and he campaigned with Al Sharpton and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for education reform, which was once a centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s domestic agenda, but has fallen out of favor with the Tea Party tendency.

The demand for retroactive fealty to the current right-wing stance on every issue has several explanations: one is the ever-rightward drift of the Republican Party, another is the tendency to prioritize partisanship over principles. Many Democrats supported Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law, because they agreed with the law’s purpose, despite their distaste for Bush. No such Republican support was forthcoming for Obama when he proposed health care and environmental legislation that many Republicans would have accepted from a Republican president.

The end result is that running for president as a Republican becomes nearly impossible. You can’t have a clean record if you don’t know what policy will become a scarlet letter in the future.


15 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Nonsense. Candidates should have core values and solid reasons for those values. Those values should not change with the political winds. Republicans , like Romney, who alter their values to get elected, should not be elected. There is no need to know what policy will become a scarlet letter in the future. Remain true to your values, even if it means you can’t become president of the United States.

Posted by DanG | Report as abusive

I agree with DanG. For too long we have had candidates that reinvented themselves to placate the media, and like Clinton, we never understood who they were or where they stood. We have one of those in the white house now along with a senator from Nevada. Seems like we, as a country are about to vomit all this old crap up, I hope.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

Republicon = Party first, America second.

Posted by NobleKin | Report as abusive

The Republican Party needs to decide if they wish to represent sophisticated, problem-solving, fiscal conservatives or backwoods religious conservatives.

I have never cast a vote for a Republican, though I voted twice for independents: Ross Perot for president and Jesse Ventura for Minnesota Governor.

If the Republicans would just focus on fiscal responsibility and stop pandering to religious zealots, even I would seriously consider their candidate.

Let the zealots form their own party.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

Okay, so where does this leave the GOP? Romney may not be out, but he probably won’t make it through the primary process. Gingrich finally said something that made sense. He pointed out that right-wing social engineering is just as wrong as the left-wing variety. Boo! says the Tea Party. He’s out. Huckabee is finally making some real(and easy) money. He took himself out. This leaves us nothing but the wingnuts and the bland, uncharismatic candidates (Pawlenty, Daniel? No way.). I hear there’s a guy named Humtsman, a total unknown, that they may spring on us. Could he be the next George W. Bush? Perhaps being an unknown quantity is the only way to get the GOP nomination this time around.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

Obamacare has pushed the Republicans so far right that Paul Ryan’s health care plan is all that they can agree on. Unfortunately it’s not what Americans want. Therefor any Republican presidential candidate that wins the primary will be hapless in the National election.

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive

Maybe if Republicans started thinking of what is best for the American people instead of their own election, their wealthy benefactors and corporate interests they would stop stepping in dog dooh.

Posted by seattlesh | Report as abusive

seattlesh, who was the last
republican you can remember who pursued what was best for the American people, instead of the wealthy, corporate interests and their own election? Eisenhower is the best I can do.

Posted by bmz | Report as abusive

I applaud the Republicans for their commitment to ideological purity. As DanG wrote, people who alter their positions to comport with reality have no business governing. I believe this so strongly that I am going to register as a Repulican and vote a straight Tea Party ticket. And I urge my fellow Democrats to do likeise.

Posted by squashrot | Report as abusive

Rubbish. The presidential race with tighten up just as much as it has in the past by election day. We’re 17 months away yet.

Oh, BMZ….And who was the last democrat who pursued what was best for America instead of buying votes with freebies? Harry Truman is the best I can do.

Posted by csigasman | Report as abusive

Let’s see if I can help explain what the next Republican candidate for President is trying to convey.

I live in Massachusetts and have been a participant in the Mass Health care connector. I have a plan that is every bit as good as the Harvard Pilgrim HHMO and HMO Blue plans which my employer’s sponsored. I have the same doctors and access to the same world reknowned hospitals (Mass General / Brigham and Women’s) at a fraction of the cost I paid utilizing my employer’s plan.

The big difference is when a plan is setup using an entire state’s population the number of participants is exponentially higher then a single corporation which of course drives down the rate an individual or family must pay.

Governor Romney unlike Obama understands that a state with a high Median income can not be compared to a state with a low median income and a giant paint brush CAN NOT be used across the country. EACH STATE must establish their own plan based on their own population and income levels.

Either way by combining a population of thousands or millions, individuals and families will benefit by a much larger pool of participants. The variety of choices will exceed what an employer plan can provide and most importantly at a significantly lower cost to individuals and families.

Our next President Mitt Romney gets my Republican vote for President!

Jay in Massachusetts.
One of the few and proud Conservatives.

triplec3@hotmail.com

Posted by usaisone | Report as abusive

It has been disappointing to observe the GOP morph into the POSH – Party of Stupidity & Hypocrisy. Now that the leadership has vowed its allegiance to the rich and superrich, it’s amazing that anyone could believe anything they say. It’s obvious that all these side devisive issues are intended to distract from this core issue.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

I’d be more embarrassed if I were Obama who supported both 1) the radical Jeremiah Wright, and 2) Chicago’s radical organization The Industrial Areas Foundation.

Let’s face it: neither party will field candidates that are good for America.

Posted by neilc23 | Report as abusive

The Republicans call individual mandates a government intrusion into our personal lives. I call it requiring people to have some personal responsibility. When you drive a car you are required to carry liability insurance so that if you cause damage or harm to someone else or their property they have recourse to take. But no, the republicans want people to be able to walk around without insurance and when they get sick or injured, well we all pick up the bill. In the small town that I live in I am currently seeing this specific scenario playing out (and have seen it before). We have a very arrogant conservative family. The husband/father is very vocal about his views of democrats as non working, non tax paying whiners. Well turns out they have no insurance they live off their credit cards and unfortunately he has become very ill. He had a heart attack, they found out he is diabetic and due to complications of the heart attack / illness has has had his foot amputated (I don’t wish such tragedy on anyone, even them). But now we all get to pick up the tab both indirectly and directly. Obviously much of the bills will have to be written off. In addition the town is having a fund raiser. I will attend and will support the fund raiser but it sure sticks in my craw. I wonder if he will still go around painting democrats as free loaders.

Posted by douthink | Report as abusive

Throughout most of my life — since around 1964 — The Republican Party has been moving further and further to the right. I have always found the rightward drift hard to understand, since most of their policies have always made very little sense to me.

Now, though, the moving-rightward process has moved so far beyond reality that I can’t figure out any response. Today Republicans are truly living in their own world.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive