WASHINGTON – 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 both of them will spend the next few weeks trying to show that they are more competent, conservative and generally Reagan-like than the other.
But as 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 with each other and with President Barack 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 HillaryCare. But that doesn’t explain why he published an op-ed in 2007 arguing that Congress should “require anyone who earns more than $50,000 a year to purchase health insurance or post a bond.” And the week before last, David Corn of Mother Jones reported that that position was still on the website of Gingrich’s Center for Health Transformation.
Romney’s excuse is that he supported an individual mandate only at the state level. And he was governor of Massachusetts — the bluest of blue states. He would never have proposed such a thing nationally.
But in June 2009, Romney appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and, responding to comments from David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, said the Republican Party needs to be able to say, “Listen, Mr. Axelrod, you’re wrong when you say we don’t have ideas.”
Among those ideas? “The right way to proceed is to reform health care. That we can do, as we did it in Massachusetts, as Wyden-Bennett is proposing doing it at the national level.” The Wyden-Bennett Healthy Americans Act, in case you’ve not read the bill lately, 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.
He even filmed an ad for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project in which he sat on a couch with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and said, “We do agree our country must take action to address climate change.”
Romney agreed, too. As governor of Massachusetts, he moved to have his state join a regional cap-and-trade program for power plants known as the “Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative,” although he reversed that position in 2005. He also imposed mandatory carbon-emission limits on the electric utilities in his state.
Obama, of course, is also a well-known supporter of programs to limit carbon emissions.
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.
So, though the policy polled poorly and advocating it meant going back on previous campaign promises, the Obama administration called for an individual mandate. Rather than welcome Obama’s concession to Republican ideas, Gingrich and Romney turned against the very policy they had supported — in Romney’s case, a policy he had signed into law and implemented. It wasn’t exactly a profile in courage of 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 — particularly given the tea party’s comfort with primary challengers — that they won’t be able to make compromises and govern effectively if either one of them is elected president.
Being truly Reagan-like, however, requires a certain ideological flexibility. Reagan cut taxes, of course. But he also raised them when deficits exploded. Reagan tried to cut Social Security, but after the Senate rejected his proposal, he set about strengthening and even expanding the program. Reagan initially opposed the creation of Medicare, but in his last year in office he tried to add catastrophic insurance to the program. Reagan was tough on the Soviet Union, but he was able to negotiate effectively when the time came.
Reagan, in other words, could campaign, but he could also govern. Can Romney and Gingrich?