According to the polls and the pundits, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are the two front-runners for the Republican nomination for president. That means each will be trying to show that he is more competent and conservative than the other.
But I’m a uniter, not a divider. I don’t want to focus on the differences between Romney and Gingrich. I want to focus on the commonalities. Because these two men have a lot in common, not only with each other but also with President Obama.
Both Gingrich and Romney, for instance, supported a universal health care plan backed by an individual mandate requiring all Americans of means to purchase health care insurance — just as Obama does.
They have their excuses, of course. Gingrich says he supported such a plan in the 1990s only because he was working to defeat Hillary Clinton’s health reform. But that doesn’t explain why he wrote a commentary in 2007 arguing that Congress should “require anyone who earns more than $50,000 a year to purchase health insurance or post a bond.”
Romney’s excuse is that he supported an individual mandate only at the state level. He would never have proposed such a thing nationally.
But in June 2009, Romney appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and called for national health care reform, mentioning the Wyden-Bennett Healthy Americans Act, which included a national individual mandate.
Gingrich and Romney also supported limits on carbon emissions to combat climate change. Gingrich’s support was particularly full-throated. “I think if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur, and if you have a tax-incentive program for investing in the solutions, that there’s a package there that’s very, very good. And frankly, it’s something I would strongly support,” he said in 2007.
Romney, Gingrich and Obama ultimately share something quite important: They are policy wonks who believe that the federal government should marshal its resources and work to solve pressing national problems. What’s unclear is whether they share something that is, perhaps, even more important: the courage to pursue good policies even in the face of significant political cost.
Take the individual mandate. The irony here is that Obama opposed an individual mandate before Gingrich and Romney did. His opposition to an individual mandate, in fact, was one of the key distinctions between his campaign and Hillary Clinton’s.
But when Obama became president, he was persuaded by his advisers, who made two arguments: First, if health care reform was to bar insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, it would require an individual mandate to guard against healthy people gaming the system and only purchasing insurance once they got sick. Second, if the bill was to have any chance of securing bipartisan support, it would have to embrace an individual mandate, as that was a key element in Republican thinking about health care reform.
But rather than welcome Obama’s concession to policy reality and Republican ideas, Gingrich and Romney turned against the very policy they had supported. It wasn’t exactly a profile in courage, much less presidential leadership.
The most generous interpretation is that Romney and Gingrich are simply playing politics. After all, when candidate Obama saw an opening to slam Clinton’s campaign by turning against the individual mandate, he took it, too. The most worrisome interpretation is that Romney and Gingrich are so fearful of offending the Republican base that neither would be able to make compromises and govern effectively if elected president.