As many of us noted some time ago, the combination of an electorate that requires perfect fealty to conservative orthodoxy with an orthodoxy that has itself undergone major changes in recent years makes life very difficult for most of the Republican candidates. Many of them have in the past supported things like a cap and trade system for carbon emissions and an individual mandate in health care, if only for the reason that when they supported those things, they were conservative positions to take. Now that those positions are anathema to Republicans, they have shifted away from them. But how much should a Republican voter punish them for their past blasphemies, when they weren't blasphemies at the time?
This is coming up now for Newt Gingrich, as some news reports have called attention to his prior support for an individual mandate in health care. Newt's explanation is that, first of all, the individual mandate was devised in part at the Heritage Foundation, and second of all, it was offered as a way to fight against Hillary Clinton's 1993 effort at health reform. The second part happens to be mostly bogus, since Gingrich supported a mandate as recently as a couple of years ago. But he's basically correct in his implication that he liked a mandate as long as it was an acceptable Republican position, then when it became a policy spit from the very fires of hell (i.e. when Barack Obama decided to advocate it), he, like all Republicans, abandoned it.
And the question Newt might ask – reasonably so – is: What's wrong with that? Why should any Republican voter be upset at this alleged flip-flop? On this issue anyway, he's been consistent in his devotion to conservative orthodoxy. When the orthodoxy changed, he changed along with it. Doesn't that mean, in fact, that he's the most trustworthy of Republicans? That if Republicans change their minds on anything else, he'll flip right along with them?
I think you could make the case. I doubt elite Republicans with an understanding of where the GOP is now and where it has traveled over the last couple of decades really fault Gingrich (or Romney, or the other candidates like John Hunstsman and Tim Pawlenty who underwent the same change) for flip-flopping on the mandate. They know why he took the position he did in the first place, and why he's taking the position he is now. So if anyone is mad, it's the Republican base voter, who may be demanding not only that candidates adhere strictly to today's orthodoxy, but that they have always held those positions, even at a time when it would have put them out of step with the party. So maybe they ought to cut Newt some slack.