Why they’re against the ideas they’re for

Just yesterday, Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty suffered through reports that he used to support efforts to combat climate change, including a cap-and-trade plan. At the same time, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C) was embarrassed by reports that he supported Mitt Romney’s health care plan — including its mandate — just a few years ago.

It led Ezra Klein to emphasize an important point.

[N]othing between 2007 and 2011 transformed an individual mandate from “making freedom work for everyone” into a “stunning assault on liberty.” There was no reason for cap-and-trade to go from a policy George H.W. Bush had proposed as an alternative to “the command and control approaches of the past” and that John McCain and Sarah Palin had championed in their campaign into cap-and-tax.

Nothing, that is, except for the election of Barack Obama, and the polarization around the policies he and the Democrats supported. And that’s politics, I guess. But too often, we pretend that it’s policy — that there’s something tucked inside the mechanics of the individual mandate that make it a policy only Democrats could support, or that cap-and-trade was invented by Al Gore and Barbara Streisand and is clearly some socialist invention from the planet Marx.

It’s important that people realize how fake many of the policy arguments that go on in this town really are, and that the media is there to call out politicians who continually move the goalposts. Because if there are no referees on the field, anything can be made to sound like a policy argument, and it’s very hard for voters to tell when the players are being straight with them.

I like to keep track of these moving goalposts, in part because the Republican shamelessness — and the ease with which they get away with it — amazes me. Before 2009, it was very common for Republican officials at a variety of levels to support cap-and-trade, an individual health care mandate, the DREAM Act, comprehensive immigration reform, at least some form of Keynesian economics, and trying terrorist suspects in civilian U.S. courts and then imprisoning them on American soil. If we go back just a little further, we see that GOP officials also used to occasionally support modest tax increases as a way to maintain fiscal sanity.

How did all of these policies — some of which originated in Republican circles — go from sensible to radical? The ideas didn’t change; Republican standards did. A Democratic president got elected, telegraphed an openness to proposals the GOP has traditionally supported, and suddenly Republicans didn’t want to take “yes” for an answer.

But there’s a related point to keep in mind. How is it, exactly, President Obama is supposed to work in good faith with these folks and find common ground under these circumstances? I assume that next year, one of the more common complaints from the GOP will be, “Obama said he’d bring people together and reach across the aisle. He failed.”

But he really didn’t. He made good faith efforts to work cooperatively with Republicans, only to find GOP officials who are against the ideas they’re for.