For the past year, Republicans, egged on by tea partiers, have bashed President Obama's health care reform plan as a huge and unprecedented federal intrusion into people's lives. They've argued in court and in the press that requiring all Americans to buy health insurance—a provision in the law known as the individual mandate—is unconstitutional. If the government can make you buy health insurance, they argue, it's only a matter of time before it forces you to eat broccoli because it's good for you. But lately, the individual mandate has won some support from the unlikeliest of people: Republican presidential contenders.
On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, former House speaker Newt Gingrich stumped for the individual mandate in his first major TV appearance after officially declaring his candidacy for 2012. While Gingrich took issue with Obama's health-care plan, criticizing it as being top-down federal model, he gave a full-throated endorsement of the individual mandate:
"I am for people, individuals—exactly like automobile insurance—individuals having having health insurance and being required to have health insurance. And I am prepared to vote for a voucher system which will give individuals, on a sliding scale, a government subsidy so we insure that everyone as individuals have health insurance."
Later, asked if he agreed with another GOP presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, on the core idea of an individual mandate, Gingrich replied:
"Well, I agree that all of us have a responsibility to pay—help pay for healthy care. And, I think that there are ways to do it that make most libertarians relatively happy. I've said consistently we ought to have some requirement that you either have health insurance or you post a bond or in some way you indicate you're going to be held accountable."
That position appears at odds with Gingrich's support of the various lawsuits at the state level challenging the constitutionality of Obama's health-care mandate. Gingrich's ringing endorsement of the individual mandate also comes days after Mitt Romney stumped the mandate as well, in a speech defending the universal health-care reform he instituted during his tenure as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007. Here's what he told a small crowd in Ann Arbor, Mich.:
I recognize that a lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake...and walk away. I presume that a lot of folks think that if I did that it would be good for me politically. There's only one problem with that: it wouldn’t be honest."
The reactions, on the right and the left, to Romney's speech were telling. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein wrote that Romney's speech was "as thoroughgoing a defense of the individual mandate as I’ve heard in months." "Mitt Romney just gave a more articulate defense of Obamacare than President Obama ever has," wrote Avik Roy in the National Review. And Reason magazine associate editor Peter Suderman said Romney offered "a much better case for ObamaCare than against it."
What'll be even more telling is how Gingrich and Romney defend themselves in the GOP presidential debates, where they're sure to get grilled on their support for the mandate. That, of course, won't compare to the harsh judgment they'll receive from the red-hot social conservatives of Iowa, who play kingmaker every four years in their crucial curtain-raising caucuses and who believe the individual mandate represents the tyranny of federal government at its very worst.