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The season of apostates 

click to enlarge Newt Gingrich image
  • Gage Skidmore

You can now make it a political maxim. No Republican can be a serious candidate for the presidential nomination in 2012 without a record of apostasy on all the burning issues of the day.

Thrust suddenly to the top rank of candidates alongside Mitt Romney after the all-too-brief boomlets for Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain fizzled, Newt Gingrich set about to formally renounce his political principles, at least those that collided with the cherished ideas of the Tea Party. He held onto only one, his notion that the country ought to have a little compassion for the Hispanics who came into the country illegally to work. Give him time on that one.

The biggest renunciation, of course, is health insurance reform. It has required the whole party to reverse field, perhaps the biggest policy shift for the Republican Party since it forsook the legacy of Lincoln and equal rights for the Southern strategy. The mandate for individuals or employers to buy health insurance had been the Republican solution to the giant problem of healthcare access since the late 1980s, and actually further back than that: to President Nixon's address to Congress in 1973 when he outlined a bill to require all U.S. employers to buy private insurance for their employees.

Gingrich had been a leading champion of a government mandate that people buy health insurance — until a couple of weeks ago when he put out a long paper on entitlement reform that called mandates an introduction to "socialized medicine," whether they were adopted by states or the federal government. It was the opening shot at Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts pushed through a law requiring people to insure themselves in the private market. Romney's plan was the template for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare."

Unless you've been in a coma, you know that the insurance mandate, which is the heart of the reform act, has been the Republican Party's call to arms for two years. Every Republican presidential candidate, including Romney, who ought to claim paternity, has vowed to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the insurance mandate as soon as they take office. Republicans filed all the lawsuits asking the courts to strike down the mandate. The Supreme Court will settle that question next summer. If Romney had been elected president in 2008 and enacted it, there would be no uncertainty about what the Supreme Court would do. Roberts, Scalia, Alito and Thomas would declare it constitutional and a great act of government forbearance.

The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that was the policy fountain for the Reagan revolution, revived Nixon's plan in 1989. In 1993, when Bill and Hillary Clinton were trying to push their convoluted health insurance reform through Congress, Republicans filed the Heritage Foundation mandate bills as alternatives to what they called "Hillarycare." Seven Republican sponsors of those bills — Orrin Hatch, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Charles Grassley, Dan Coats, Thad Cochran and Richard Lugar — are still in the Senate. All of them kept silent during the healthcare debate in Congress in 2009 and 2010 on orders from the leadership and quietly voted against the bill that was built upon the ones they had sponsored.

Across the Capitol in the 1993 healthcare battle, Rep. Newt Gingrich was championing the mandate in the House of Representatives.

What he said then on Meet the Press: "I am for people, individuals — exactly like automobile insurance — having health insurance and being required to have health insurance." He explained it the same way President Obama explained it after he came around to the mandate. It's necessary to stop uninsured people from shifting the cost of their care to those who are covered, they said.

On Meet the Press last May, Gingrich said he was not going to use Romney's Massachusetts mandate against him because he fundamentally agreed with it.

"I have 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," he declared.

At that point Gingrich was joining in the fulminations against Obamacare but he was picking out other reasons, repeating, for example, Sarah Palin's fictitious charge that the new law had "death panels." The death panels, by the way, were based on another Republican idea — insuring "end of life" counseling by doctors. Gingrich had strongly and repeatedly embraced that idea, too — until recently. The Senate stripped the little Republican proviso from the bill after Palin's rant got legs.

Gingrich's for-profit think tank, the Center for Health Transformation, still promotes the individual insurance mandate. Everyone who earns more than $50,000 a year would be forced by law to buy health insurance or post a bond to cover future catastrophic medical expenses. Instead of posting a bond, the Obama law gives them the option of paying a small tax if they choose not to buy insurance with the help of a government subsidy.

When Gingrich attacked Romney on his Massachusetts insurance mandate and accused him of fathering Obamacare in a debate in October, Romney said he got the idea from Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation.

"If I'd been clever," Gingrich retorted, "I would have said, 'yes, Mitt, and I was wrong and why don't you recognize that you're wrong too?'"

That's all that it takes, you see, to be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination this year. Just a little phony remorse.

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