Once the presidential nomination process is settled — and Lord knows that day can’t come fast enough — Republicans will get back to doing what they do best, getting on Barack Obama’s case. Incredibly, though, they’ll have to do it without one of their most potent arguments.
The Republican candidate, after all, can’t effectively attack what he supports. Today both leading contenders for the nomination have defended the idea of government’s forcing all consumers to buy something in the interest of the common good. An individual mandate is about health insurance today, but really no one has offered any good reason Washington couldn’t force us to buy a government-sanctioned iPad or rubber ducky tomorrow.
Even Obama feigned disapproval of the idea during his campaign in 2008. Yet Newt Gingrich has supported some variation of a federal health insurance mandate going as far back as 1993. The blog “Verum Serum” recently uncovered a conference call from May 2009 — as Obamacare was nearing a simmer — wherein Newt says he believes that “everyone must have health insurance. Or if you are an absolute libertarian, we would allow you to post a bond, but we would not allow people to be free riders, failing to insure themselves and then show up at the emergency room with no means of payment.”
Without the help of Newt’s false choices, a recent poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 54 percent of respondents take the “pure libertarian” position and believe that an individual mandate should be unconstitutional. Politically speaking, Gingrich may continue to rhetorically challenge Obamacare’s mandate as “unconstitutional,” but soon he’s going to have to answer for his own long-standing support. Why did he change his mind? Even if he provides a compelling answer, it’ll be too late. (“For 20 years, even conservative icon Newt Gingrich supported the basis of the president’s health care plan. … I’m Barack Obama, and I approved this message.”)
The same gotcha exists for Mitt Romney, of course, who has never backed away from his support for a mandate or his Massachusetts plan. The only thing more annoying than his decision to remain consistent on this single issue is the epic dissembling he employs to defend it. We get it; federalism. We get it; the folks in Massachusetts believe that Romneycare is a great idea. Guess what? The folks in Massachusetts think that a lot of dumb ideas are fantastic.
I suppose Romney believes that voters should be impressed that as governor of Massachusetts, he didn’t force West Virginians to use his top-down state-controlled health care system. Yes, federalism diffuses centralized power; it’s a worthy process, a great idea, and it’s got nothing to do with Romney’s record. Put it this way: Just because I love the First Amendment doesn’t mean I have to love the obscene things Joe Biden has done with it.
No doubt, the impending presidential debate will center on the state of the economy — and general election voters are far less ideologically motivated than primary voters. Yet grander themes can move people. Obama will continue to spin tales about a nation strangled by capitalistic excess and inequity. It is an arching theme that plays on the fears of many nervous Americans and is sure to animate grass-roots supporters in urban tent environments everywhere.
Republicans, in turn, have lost a genuine opportunity to point to the purest example of Obama’s aversion to economic and individual freedom. It’s the mandate that allows Obamacare to assault religious freedom. It’s the mandate, coupled with increasing regulatory burdens, that many people fear will limit consumer choice and competition.
The entire project falls apart without the mandate.
No doubt, Mitt or Newt will continue to promise to overturn the health care reform law — and, who knows, the winner may. Or perhaps the Supreme Court will save us all by deeming the mandate unconstitutional. But to think, after all the anger and frustration caused by Obamacare — not to mention its persisting unpopularity — one of the strongest arguments against it has been dulled before the GOP presidential nominee could even make it.
David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Blaze. Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.