Why the Republicans are committing fratricide
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.