The Republican idea that Republicans hate

THE REPUBLICAN IDEA THAT REPUBLICANS HATE…. This morning, Brian Beutler ran an item emphasizing a point I’ve published so many times, I suspect readers are sick of seeing it: the individual mandate in health care reform enjoyed broad, bipartisan support until the GOP reversed course in 2009.

Brian notes that the mandate idea was “once a popular, if not consensus, policy framework on the right,” abandoned by Republican after President Obama said he agreed with the Republican idea. Sticking up for the GOP is Philip Klein at the American Spectator, who makes the case that the “consensus” was “imaginary.”

There’s no doubting the fact that the Heritage Foundation supported the idea, as well as some Republicans — Beutler cites John Chafee, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney — but that simply is not indicative of how “the right” broadly thought about health care. Chaffee was known as the ultimate RINO before passing the torch to his son. Dole was viewed by the right as a Washington insider who was too eager to compromise with Democrats, with the early years of the Clinton presidency as a possible exception. None of the Republicans running for president in 2008 included a mandate in their health care proposals — even Mitt Romney, who defended state-based mandates, was wishy-washy about whether he supported one at the national level. Romney spent most of the 2008 campaign running away from his health care plan in Massachusetts. When he did defend his support for mandates, he was harshly rebuked by his opponents, as in this exchange with Fred Thompson.

For all the talk of the mandate being a consensus position, George W. Bush did not run on it in 2000 or 2004, nor did he push it as president. If this was so popular among the right, why wasn’t there an effort to make a mandate law when the GOP controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress? The reality is that while you can find individual examples of Republicans or think tankers who once supported a mandate, it was nothing close to a popular, consensus position among conservatives.

Klein’s post is not outrageous on its face, and some of the argument hinges on how one defines “the right.” But I’d argue that Klein’s version of recent history on the policy is incomplete. Whether “the right” was broadly supportive of the idea, the Republican Party threw its support behind the mandate decades ago.

Nixon embraced it in the 1970s, and George H.W. Bush supported the idea in the 1980s. When Dole endorsed the mandate in 1994, it was in keeping with the party’s prevailing attitudes at the time. Romney embraced the mandate as governor and it was largely ignored during the ’08 campaign. This didn’t stop Romney from gaining plenty of conservative support, including an endorsement from the Weekly Standard.

But, Klein might argue, Nixon, Dole, H.W. Bush, and Romney (at least the previous version) aren’t considered conservative by the standards of contemporary conservatism. Fair enough. But the mandate has also been embraced by the likes of John McCain, Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Bob Bennett, Tommy Thompson, Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham, John Thune, Scott Brown, and Judd Gregg, among others. Indeed, several of them not only endorsed the policy, they literally co-sponsored legislation that included the mandate. Are they all RINOs?

During the fight over Obama’s reform proposal, Grassley told Fox News, of all outlets, “I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have an individual mandate” — and there was no pushback from party leaders. This isn’t ancient history; it was a year and a half ago.

I realize it’s inconvenient now — the individual mandate has become the key argument against the Affordable Care Act on the right — but the history of Republican support of the idea they now hate is incontrovertible.