Pawlenty Flip-Flops on Health Care

Is T-Paw the new John Kerry?

When outgoing Minnesota governor and aspiring 2012 Republican presidential nominee Tim Pawlenty announced yesterday that he plans to sue the federal government over the new national health-care law, almost nobody in Washington raised an eyebrow. After all, Pawlenty had earlier asked Minnesota's Democratic attorney general, Lori Swanson, to sign onto the suit filed by 13 other AGs declaring Obamacare's individual mandate unconstitutional, so it was no surprise that the governor decided to take matters into his own hands when Swanson refused. As Pawlenty put it yesterday, "The federal government is now requiring citizens under penalty of afine to buy a good or a service, and we think that's an unprecedentedoverreach . . . into the lives of individualcitizens." How could a true patriot stand idly by as Big Brother destroys the American Dream? 

The only problem? Back on Sept. 13, Pawlenty explicitly ruled out taking legal action against Obamacare. Asked by George Stephanopoulos whether he would consider invoking the 10th Amendment—the one that reserves powers to the states—in order to prevent the law from taking effect in Minnesota, Pawlenty hemmed and hawed, invoking "common sense" to argue that "we need to have a clear understanding of what the federal government does well and what should be reserved to the states."

But then Stephanopoulos asked a direct, unavoidable question. "So just to be clear," he said, "are you suggesting that any parts of the plan as the president has laid it out are unconstitutional?"

Pawlenty's response was equally direct: "I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a legal issue."

Now that Pawlenty is, in fact, making it a legal issue, I think it's fair to declare this a bona fide, grade-A flip-flop. Even in September, every version of the Democratic plan—the House version, the Senate versions—included an individual mandate, so by agreeing that no parts of the proposal were unconstitutional, the Minnesota governor, a lawyer by training, effectively positioned federal mandates within the boundaries of the law (even if he himself isn't a fan of the concept). At this point, Pawlenty can't really claim that signing on with the anti-mandate attorneys general has anything to do with the Constitution. It's simply an opportunistic play for political advantage. 

Which isn't to say the maneuver is illogical. As I've written before, Pawlenty has spent the past few months trying to outflank his probable 2012 rival Mitt Romney on Obamacare, slashing Minnesota's government-backed insurance system, bragging about his refusal to approve statewide mandates, and criticizing Romney's Massachusetts overhaul, which served as the model for the national plan, as an abject failure. His goal: framing the 2012 battle as "Pawlenty: Small-Government Cost-Cutter" vs. "Romney: Obama Lite." Moving right on health care forces Romney to twist himself into knots to follow—or simply to abandon the terrain altogether. It's a win-win for T-Paw.

Still, Pawlenty should try to limit his blatant reversals to a bare minimum. The 25 percent of voters who still identify as Republicans might not care how many times Pawlenty flip-flops, as long as he flips and flops in the right direction. But the other 75 percent will. And while the first group gets to choose a nominee, the second gets to choose a president.