Yesterday, the closely watched “Obamacare” proceedings at the Supreme Court focused on the issue that most commentators are calling central to the debate over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act: mandates. The campaign of Republican presidential candidate and 2012 frontrunner, Mitt Romney, probably hates that mandates are the key topic of discussion in this week’s news cycle, and will be for the rest of the Republican Primary until the Supreme Court hands down a decision on what pundits are calling “The Case of the Century.”
Or maybe not.
The fact that Mitt Romney is well on his way to the Republican Party’s nomination despite his history with mandates signals just how deeply in disarray the GOP is. In the Obama era, the rallying issue for rank and file Republicans has been their opposition to the president’s signature legislative accomplishment. Opposition to “Obamacare” wasn’t just a radically libertarian Tea Party issue; it united all of the various factions of the Republican Party from the Tea Party’s fiscal hawks to party leaders and legislators in the beltway.
It should come as a oddly puzzling surprise then, that the candidate leading the pack for the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination— the one that they’ll be sending out to unseat and replace Barack Obama– worked hard to pass an individual mandate as part of a health care reform bill that would be his own piece of signature legislation as governor of Massachusetts. Commentators have already repeatedly pointed out the similarities between “Obamacare” and “Romneycare,” which was actually used as the blueprint for health care reform. Mitt Romney has continued to defend individual mandates as good policy, and even as conservative, retreating only to the flimsy distinction between the Affordable Care Act’s implentation on a national level, and Romney’s own health care reform, which was implemented on a state level.
The distinction is flimsy because critics of the Affordable Care Act aren’t only arguing that it’s unconstitutional; ever since the national health care debate kicked off during President Obama’s administration, Republicans have bristled at the idea of the government forcing a citizen to purchase a product or service as a morally repugnant violation of individual liberty and a misguided intervention into the operations of the free market. It’s also flimsy because Mitt Romney doesn’t even always draw the distinction himself. During an ABC News debate in 2008, when Charlie Gibson said, “You’ve backed away from mandates on a national basis,” Mitt Romney actually corrected him, saying: “Oh no, I like mandates. The mandates work.” When Fred Thompson interrupted him to say, “Excuse me?” Romney responded, “Let me tell you what kind of mandates I like–” only to be cut off again by Thompson, who quipped, “–the ones you come up with.” (Watch the video)
So as Republicans watch the debate over President Obama’s health care reform unfold in the Supreme Court and eagerly hope that it will be overturned as unconstitutional, why aren’t Mitt Romney’s own positions and accomplishments with individual mandates more toxic to his campaign? Why is the GOP so philosophically incoherent? If Republican voters actually cared about mandates as much as they claim to when Democrats pass them, they would find a candidate like Mitt Romney intolerable. Could all the opposition and sanctimony over mandates be just more partisan posturing against a president they don’t like? Clearly philosophy and principles aren’t as important to many Republican voters during this primary as they were during the health care debate many months ago. For now, party and personality rule the day.
So much for the Tea Party’s influence.