What do Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, have in common?
Long before President Obama even entered the Oval Office, both men supported an idea they now pretend to spurn — the idea of requiring people to buy health insurance.
As recently as 2009, Romney publicly supported, the “individual mandate” for buying health insurance. And as recently as last month one of Gingrich’s websites still endorsed the “mandate” for all Americans earning more than $50,000 annually.
Romney and Gingrich are not alone in their history of supporting the idea of a government requirement that everyone buy health insurance. As governor of Utah in 2007, Jon Huntsman endorsed a health care reform plan from the United Way of Salt Lake City that called for a mandate.
“I think if you’re going to get it done and get it done right, the mandate has to be part of it in some way, shape or form,” he said at the time.
Gingrich, Romney and Huntsman are wide open to charges of political hypocrisy.
They apparently feel the need to fake their outrage over the individual mandate to win the GOP nomination. In an age of outrageous political posturing — telling lies and daring anyone to call you on it — this is the strongest indicator of the current lack of leadership and honest political debate about major national problems.
And it is not even good politics.
A CNN poll taken in November found that support for the individual mandate rose to its highest level yet, with 52 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed. The previous poll taken in June found that 54 percent opposed it and 44 percent supported it. That shift to support for the individual mandate is likely to grow as more parts of the overall Affordable Healthcare Act go into effect over the next two years.
At the moment, polling results on the overall national health care reform plan range from support between 38 percent and 40 percent and opposition between 44 percent and 48 percent (Quinnipiac and Kaiser Family polling). That split is pretty good for a plan filled with so many unknowns.
But as the GOP contenders face waves of strong conservative voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, united principally by a distaste for Obama, those candidates have concluded it is wise to pretend to have no connection with Obama’s signature legislation. Tea Party anger at the Democrats’ health care reform plan did drive the success of Republican candidates who won big in the 2010 midterm elections.
But times change.
Now national polls show support for the Tea Party is lower than support for Occupy Wall Street, and falling fast. And already Americans express support for key elements of the health care reform legislation that have been implemented, including allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans until they are twenty six.
Similarly, support is high for requiring insurance companies to insure people with pre-existing medical conditions as well as closing the so-called “doughnut hole” in subsidies that help seniors pay for prescription drugs.
The general election campaign is going to be even more distant from angry Tea Party activists. By the 2012 general election, the eventual GOP nominee is going to be open to charges of flip-flopping on healthcare reform. He will also find himself out of step with the American people who know the status quo on healthcare is expensive and leaves them vulnerable to the profit-driven prerogatives of insurance companies.
Romney, Gingrich and Huntsman have to realize they are playing a losing game in terms of general election politics.
At the CNN debate this October in Las Vegas, Gingrich took a swipe at Romney over the former Massachusetts governor’s healthcare plan that requires citizens in the Bay State to buy health insurance. Romney shot back: “Newt, we got the idea of individual mandate from you.”
Gingrich responded: “You did not get that from me. You got that from the Heritage Foundation.”
They are both correct on this revealing point. The Heritage Foundation, the influential conservative think tank, first developed the idea of an individual mandate for healthcare in the late 1980s. That is how deeply this idea is tied to conservative thinkers.
Romney used the Heritage policy in developing his Massachusetts health care law. That reform contained the dreaded individual mandate.
And Gingrich supported the federal mandate as an alternative to Hillary Clinton’s health care reform package when he was Speaker in the 1990s.
If Republican voters heard Gingrich and Romney speak honestly about health care reform — and why they came to appreciate and support the good of the individual mandate — my bet is that most GOP and independent voters would be more impressed than they are with the blatant lies now being told on the campaign trail.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His next book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July. This column originally appeared on The Hill.com.