WASHINGTON - Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich took a subtle shot at primary frontrunner Mitt Romney on Monday, arguing that health care mandates lead to "socialized medicine" regardless of whether they're implemented by the federal or state government.
The dig was buried on page 40 of a 48-page entitlement reform proposal that Gingrich released during a campaign event on Monday in New Hampshire.
"Individual and employer mandates are bad policy leading down the road to socialized medicine, whether the mandates are adopted at the federal level, or the state level," Gingrich wrote in that document.
Gingrich, the 67-year old former House Speaker, has reason not to trumpet criticism of a mandate too loudly. He himself advocated for such an idea in the past.
But last week, Gingrich said he had erred in favoring the idea during an interview with conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin. During the interview, Gingrich revisited his response to Romney in an Oct. 18 debate when Romney deflected a Gingrich attack on his health care plan by saying he got the idea for a mandate from Gingrich.
"If I'd been clever I would have said yes Mitt, and I was wrong and why don't you recognize that you're wrong too?" Gingrich said.
At the time, Gingrich said only that Romney's Massachusetts plan was "one more big-government, bureaucratic, high-cost system." And more importantly, Gingrich exempted Romney from the most common and harmful attack leveled by most conservatives at the health care plan Romney signed as Massachusetts governor in 2006 -- that it laid the groundwork for President Obama's national health care overhaul.
"It's not 'Obamacare.' That's not a fair charge," Gingrich said.
That exchange took place at a time when Gingrich was still considered a second-tier candidate. He has since shot to the top of the pack in recent polls and is quickly assuming the role of Romney's top rival in the quest for the Republican nomination.
Now, however, Gingrich has taken a big step toward arguing that Romney's health care law is a version of the national health care reform effort. Having performed a mea culpa and taken a strong stance against the mandate, the stage could be set for Gingrich to go after Romney more aggressively on his support for a mandate.
Gingrich's critique of the mandate came toward the end of a long treatise on the need for private accounts in Social Security and a voucher-like program in Medicare, to introduce market forces and competition into health care and entitlement programs.
Gingrich's mandate takedown bore the marks of a man who has methodically traced, step by step, the implications of a policy he once supported to make a detailed argument for why it was a mistake. Gingrich's disavowal was a seven-sentence mini-treatise:
"The intractable problem with such individual and employer mandates is this: once you have a mandate, the government has to specify exactly what coverage must be included in insurance for it to qualify. This introduces political considerations into determining these minimum standards, guaranteeing that nothing desired by the special interests will be left out. And once the government mandates such expensive insurance, the government becomes responsible for its costs. It has to adopt expensive subsidies to help people pay for the expensive plans that it is requiring. The resulting cost to the taxpayer and strain on the budget leads the government to try and control healthcare costs by limiting healthcare services. The inevitable result is rationing by a nameless, faceless, unaccountable board of government bureaucrats. This is why individual and employer mandates are bad policy leading down the road to socialized medicine, whether the mandates are adopted at the federal level, or the state level."
Romney continued to defend his support for the idea on Monday, according to a transcript of a taped interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity set to air in the evening.
"Don't forget, this health care plan was something we learned about from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank," Romney said. "Even Newt Gingrich supported the idea of an individual mandate, insisting on personal responsibility."
"Now, what we did isn't perfect," Romney added. "Some parts of it worked, some didn't, some things I would change. But it's not like it's a liberal idea. It was a conservative concept."