WASHINGTON — Two roads diverged on the campaign trail, as GOP presidential candidates sought to deal with formerly proud positions once embraced by the Republican Party writ large that are now considered liabilities.
Tim Pawlenty took one and flatly apologized for his prior support of cap and trade. “It was a mistake, it was stupid and I’m sorry,” he said at a candidate forum in Manchester, N.H., last month. “I don’t’ try to defend it, it was dumb.”
Mitt Romney took the other last week and attempted to explain how the health care law he signed into law as Massachusetts governor — underlined by an individual health care mandate — was a good idea, even while he pledges to repeal the national health reform law that was based in part on his Romneycare legislation.
“I presume that a lot of folks would think that if I did that it would be good for me politically,” Romney said of calls to apologize during a speech at the University of Michigan. “There’s only one problem with that, it wouldn’t be honest. I did what I think was right for the people of my state.”
The two approaches are striking, political analysts say, and illustrate a contrast in styles that presidential hopefuls will have to contemplate as they recast parts of their record to appeal to the 2012 primary electorate.
“The proof’s in the nomination pudding on the divergent Pawlenty and Romney approaches to their policy baggage,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Pawlenty has tried to take all his medicine early, leaving little left to his rivals who would have tried to force feed it to him later.
“At the same time, a candidate never looks good eating his own words and policies. The indigestion is apparent to all. It doesn’t look especially presidential.”
It’s worth pointing out very clearly that the ground has shifted. In both these cases, what were once widely supported within the Republican Party.
The final version of the heath care law, according to several long-time observers, actually bore quite a resemblance to one proposal put out by Republican President Richard Nixon that was scotched by Democrats at the time as not going far enough.
Former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein, now more known as an economist and comedian, defended his former boss last year in an extensive editorial on AOL News.
“In many ways, the bill was far more ‘socialist’ than what Mr. Obama has proposed. It certainly involved a far larger swath of state and federal government power over health care. Please remember that this was 36 years ago, when middle-class Americans still had some slight faith that government was on their side.”
Plans with individual mandates were proposed by Republican President George H.W. Bush, endorsed by the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and supported by many leading Republicans, including Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“The idea that past support for the individual mandate is some weird quirk of Gingrich or Romney’s past just isn’t accurate,” wrote the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. “If you’re talking about Republicans who were in any way active during the 1990s, there’s a very good chance you’re talking about Republicans who either supported or said nice things about bills that included an individual mandate.”
Likewise, carbon cap-and-trade systems were widely supported on the right in the last decade — including by Pawlenty, Gingrich and Romney.
Pawlenty appeared in a video urging Congress to “deal with the real threat of climate change” alongside Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano — now the secretary of Homeland Security. Gingrich did one of his own, alongside former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Romney, meanwhile, advocated a regional cap-and-trade system in the northeast.
But now, the ground has shifted.
Both those positions are now anathema on the GOP side of the aisle. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the health care law — mostly backed by Republicans — alleging that the individual mandate once championed on the right is in fact unconstitutional.
And cap-and-trade was able in the last Congress to only pass the House, and by a slim margin at that. It was deemed so politically toxic that Democrats couldn’t corral 60 votes in the Senate for it when they had them in 2009 — Republicans certainly didn’t rush to help out and make up the numbers — and legislation died for lack of support in that chamber.
Analysts: Romney’s task tougher than Pawlenty’s
Larry Jacobs, the chair for political studies at the University of Minnesota, said the greater liability is Romney’s. The so-called Romneycare bill is his standard-bearing achievement as governor, while Pawlenty’s support for a regional cap-and-trade system never quite became enacted policy.
“Romney has a worse problem, of course. Health care reform is central to the GOP critique of Obama. How exactly do they go about having that debate in the fall if they nominate someone who sponsored a similar program in Massachusetts?
“Romney had a choice of repudiation of his own actions — and health care was perhaps his single greatest achievement as governor — or the route he actually took (bluffing his way through it, holding onto his plan and insisting it was different than Obamacare while advocating ‘repeal and replace’). Romney’s rivals will never let him alone on this one.”
The issues aren’t going away. For Pawlenty in Manchester and Romney in Michigan, neither was the first time they’d addressed those issues. Yet it’s how they address these policies — once accepted, now abhorred — that will help define their campaigns going forward.
“Candidates only get so many chances to apologize or change positions,” said Dante Scala, at the University of New Hampshire. “Romney has run out of all of his after 2008. Another change or apology would only reinforce the notion that he has no core set of political principles.
“Pawlenty’s new to the game. An apology does not get him off the hook, but it reduces the chance that he ties himself up in knots for months on end. Not a bad idea to say he was wrong and move on.”