Romney, Gingrich and Obama ultimately share something quite important: They are policy wonks who believe that the federal government should marshal its resources and work to solve pressing national problems. What’s unclear is whether they share something that is, perhaps, even more important: the courage to pursue good policies even in the face of significant political cost.
Take the individual mandate. The irony here is that Obama opposed an individual mandate before Gingrich and Romney did. His opposition to an individual mandate, in fact, was one of the key distinctions between his campaign and Hillary Clinton’s.
Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog and a columnist at the Washington Post, as well as a contributor to MSNBC and Bloomberg. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system that’s constantly screwing it up. He really likes graphs, and is on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. E-mail him here.
But when Obama became president, he was persuaded by his advisers, who made two arguments: First, if health-care reform was to bar insurance companies from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions, it would require an individual mandate to guard against healthy people gaming the system and only purchasing insurance once they got sick. Second, if the bill was to have any chance of securing bipartisan support, it would have to embrace an individual mandate, as that was a key element in Republican thinking about health-care reform.
So though the policy polled poorly and advocating it meant going back on previous campaign promises, the Obama administration called for an individual mandate. But rather than greet the president’s concession to policy reality and Republican ideas, Gingrich and Romney turned against the very policy they had supported — in Romney’s case, a policy he had signed into law and implemented. It wasn’t exactly a profile in courage, much less presidential leadership.
The most generous interpretation is that Romney and Gingrich are simply playing politics. After all, when candidate Obama saw an opening to slam Clinton’s campaign by turning against the individual mandate, he took it, too. The most worrisome interpretation is that Romney and Gingrich are so fearful of offending the Republican base — particularly given the Tea Party’s comfort with primary challengers — that they won’t be able to make compromises and govern effectively if either one of them is elected president.
Being truly Reagan-like, however, requires a certain ideological flexibility. Reagan cut taxes, of course. But he also raised them when deficits exploded. Reagan tried to cut Social Security, but after the Senate rejected his proposal, he set about strengthening and even expanding the program. Reagan initially opposed the creation of Medicare, but in his last year in office he tried to add catastrophic insurance to the program. Reagan was tough on the Soviet Union, but he was able to negotiate effectively when the time came. Reagan, in other words, could campaign, but he could also govern. Can Romney and Gingrich?