Ezra Klein has a fascinating piece which should be required reading for those who believe Republicans’ have but one goal that trumps all principle or policy: defeating President Barack Obama. Klein explains how the Republicans completely reversed field on the individual mandate to purchase health care, going from long-standing support to united opposition. Klein does a great job explaining how this came about, citing some interesting psychological research about how tribal and mutual-reinforcing political views truly are. But Klein, perhaps because it is too obvious, spends little time on why this flip-flop came about, and it is here that one smells something quite a bit stronger than mere rational reconsideration.
There are basically three mechanisms for expanding health-care coverage, and two of them have always been anathema to the Republicans: single-payer and an employer mandate. Clinton chose the employer mandate as the less radical alternative to single-payer, and thus the individual mandate was born as a Republican idea, delivered by the party’s intellectual obstetrics ward, the Heritage Foundation.
Republicans, from John Chafee to Bob Bennett to, most famously, Mitt Romney, embraced the mandate. For some, it seemed in keeping with an emphasis on individual responsibility; the state shouldn’t be expected to pay for people who can afford to enter the private insurance market. For others, it was simply the least obnoxious way to make the numbers work; I imagine this describes Mitt Romney’s support.
But then, a funny thing happened, and it happened fast. Barack Obama, initially skeptical of the mandate, embraced it as president, reasoning that it had enjoyed significant bipartisan support in the past and was therefore the best mechanism to increase coverage, the major goal of his and other previous health-care bills.
For a while, the mandate remained uncontroversial, but as the bill gained momentum, Republican pollsters,seeking ammo to defeat it, started to notice that a certain swath of voters hated the idea. This polling corresponded with the rise of the Tea Party and its distrust of government power. But still the mandate survived, and the law passed — barely.
The day it passed, the lawsuits challenging it began. Their basis? The constitutionality of the mandate. Klein points out that such a legal argument, once fringe, went mainstream in a matter of months. While most judges upheld its legitimacy, two federal judges ruled against it on constitutional grounds. These defeats not only reverberated through the highly effective right-wing media machine, but also, as Klein notes, received much more prominent coverage than the favorable judicial rulings in the mainstream media. Soon, the Republicans had a new rallying cry to overturn Obama’s law. In a matter of a few years, opposition to an idea created and embraced by Republicans was a party requirement.
There is a pattern that Klein notes in Republicans’ new-found opposition to the mandate. They have done the same thing on cap and trade, deficit spending and Obama's current jobs plan, all ideas they once supported, but now decry. But here’s where I make a more conspiratorial conclusion than Mr. Klein’s. Republicans have no policy beliefs anymore that won’t be sacrificed easily and quickly in service of their overarching goal: making Obama a one-term president. Democrats are pikers when it comes to this kind of partisanship; after all, it was Democrats who gave Bush the votes to pass his two signature domestic initiatives: his tax cuts and the expansion of the prescription drug benefit. Republicans play by a different set of rules.