The Republican primary voters who continue to cast about for a presidential nominee—one not named Mitt Romney—have lately alit on Newt Gingrich as their newest infatuation. Gingrich has plenty of appealing qualities, chief among them that he's entertaining. But why, exactly, should conservatives prefer him to Romney?
Going down the list of conservative objections to Romney, every one applies equally, if not more so, to Gingrich.
Support for health care mandates: Romney's embrace in his Massachusetts health care reform of a requirement that individuals buy health insurance, which he's refused to repudiate, is his scarlet letter for many on the right; he says he opposes mandates at the federal level but that the provision was right for Massachusetts and promotes personal responsibility.
Gingrich, for his part, has long been a vigorous supporter of mandates—from the 1990s, when many conservatives championed the idea in opposition to Hillary Rodham Clinton's health-reform proposal, to as recently as 2008, when he wrote in his book Real Change: "We should insist that everyone above a certain level buy coverage (or, if they are opposed to insurance, post a bond). Meanwhile, we should provide tax credits or subsidize private insurance for the poor." In a 2007 Des Moines Register op-ed, Gingrich specifically used the dreaded words "individual mandate," saying, "Personal responsibility extends to the purchase of health insurance."
It's not clear when Gingrich's position changed to his current vehement rejection of mandates. As recently as May, he was speaking favorably about "some requirement you either have health insurance or you post a bond"—comments that were followed by a hasty retreat the next day: "I am against any effort to impose a federal mandate on anyone because it is fundamentally wrong and, I believe, unconstitutional." In making that statement, Gingrich didn't explain the dissonance with what he'd said the day before.
Squishy on abortion: Romney's conversion (or flip-flop, depending on your point of view) from pro-abortion-rights as a Massachusetts politician to antiabortion as a national one is well known. Gingrich has never vociferously advocated for abortion rights, and, unlike Romney, he has now signed the antiabortion pledge proffered by the Susan B. Anthony List, which asks candidates to promote antiabortion legislation, appoint those who oppose abortion, and cut off federal funds for abortion providers.
But—as social-conservative purists like Rick Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., have lately been pointing out—in his days as the leader of a resurgent House GOP, Gingrich advocated a big tent. In 1990, for example, he said that rather than being strict abortion prohibitionists, the Republican Party ought to "be the party that on balance prefers the fewest abortions possible." He supported some taxpayer funding of abortion, a stance that his campaign now says he has reversed.
Squishy on immigration: In the last debate, Gingrich made an emotional argument in favor of some sort of legalization process for some illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S., particularly those brought to the country as children. The resulting dust-up revealed that Romney's stance, beneath his many evasions, isn't materially different: He'd rather talk about securing the border, he doesn't want lawbreakers to get special treatment, but he also is not in favor of mass deportation. In 2006, he told Bloomberg that he would not have illegal immigrants "rounded up and box-carred out."
If immigration hawks are looking for a candidate who'll take a tougher stance than Romney, though, Gingrich's line in the debate showed he's not their man. "I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, 'Let's be humane in enforcing the law, without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families,' " he said.