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May 21, 2011 11:10 AM Flip-flopping is bad; lying is worse

By Steve Benen

Jon Huntsman’s health care problem is likely to be challenging enough as it is. By some accounts, Huntsman expressed support for the Affordable Care Act while it was pending in Congress, only to change his mind once he hit the presidential campaign trail. Yesterday, Huntsman went so far as to say, “If I had a chance to repeal it, I would.”

As it turns out, though, Huntsman has another health care problem, and this one is arguably worse.

Team Huntsman would have voters believe that the former Utah governor, unlike President Obama and Mitt Romney, has no use for individual health care mandates, as reflected by his 2008 reform measure at the state level. But as the Huffington Post reports, there’s reason to believe Huntsman may be playing fast and loose with the facts.

One month before the 2004 election, Huntsman invited [Dr. David Sundwall, who was executive director of Utah’s Department of Health] to his home to ask him to join his administration if he won the gubernatorial race. Sundwall said in an interview this week that he asked Huntsman what he wanted to do.

“He said, ‘I’d like everyone in Utah to have health insurance. It’s something that all of us long for. This business of the uninsured costs us a lot of money,’” Sundwall said. “It made sense to me.”

Sundwall accepted the job. As soon as Huntsman was sworn in, the administration convened a group on health care to hash out a reform plan. They met for regular dinners at the house of a supporter who lived near the governor’s residence. The group concluded, Sundwall said, that you couldn’t do reform without a mandate.

The governor, he added, signed on to the idea. “He was supportive,” Sundwall said. “It was something he would have liked to have happened.”

The Huntsman administration’s support for a mandate didn’t much matter in the legislature, where GOP leaders quickly rejected the idea. The provision was soon scuttled.

But the relevant point now is that Huntsman supported the idea from the outset. His own health department director isn’t the only one to say so — the executive director of the nonpartisan Utah Health Policy Project also said the then-governor wanted a mandate, as do media accounts from the time.

Local press reports from the time also reflect a different picture than the one Huntsman relates now, as he tries to win over the decidedly right-leaning Republican primary electorate.

Far from quickly dropping the idea of a mandate, Huntsman was “suggesting Utah should mandate health coverage for residents,” according to a July 12, 2007, Salt Lake City Weekly piece.

An August 11 Salt Lake Tribune story described the governor’s ambitious reform this way: “John T. Nielsen, who is working with the Governor’s Office in spearheading legislation for the plan, would mandate that all Utahn have health insurance through a nonprofit exchange that would facilitate the purchase of insurance.”

By the end of the summer of 2007, Huntsman’s health care panel had put together a framework for a state-based reform package — with a mandate, an exchange, and subsidies — that sounds quite a bit like the Affordable Care Act. And by all accounts, the then-governor was an “enthusiastic” supporter of that framework, though the Utah legislature ultimately opted for a far more limited approach.

This is a problem in more ways than one.

The obvious issue is the fact that the GOP — the party that came up with the mandate idea — has decided that the mandate is a political poison, and its proponents are not to be trusted. This makes Huntsman vulnerable to the same criticisms that have dogged Romney.

On a related note, if Huntsman has reversed course, he’s also that much more vulnerable to flip-flopping charges, adding to a long (and growing) list of issues in which he no longer resembles his former self.

But arguably most important is the dishonesty. Yesterday, Huntsman told reporters, “I didn’t push mandates with the legislature. You want to get that right.” But there’s ample evidence that he did push mandates with the legislature, and he’s not getting this right.

Flip-flopping can be embarrassing for a presidential candidate, but dishonesty has the potential to be far more damaging. Huntsman isn’t even a formal candidate yet, and he seems to already be slipping into some disturbing habits.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • c u n d gulag on May 21, 2011 11:21 AM:

    Whoddathunk it would be the two Mormons who cared about health care for the people in their states, while the candidates from the more traditional Christian denominations basically keep telling folks that the best way to have affordable health care is to die young and/or die fast?

    WWJDHCT?
    'Who Would Jesus Deny Health Care To?'

  • WordsNotWorth on May 21, 2011 11:44 AM:

    LIE: It's what Publicans do.

    It's their default mode.
    It's their go-to move.
    It's their SOP,
    'Cause they're SOBs.

    It's what's for Publican dinner
    And breakfast and lunch.
    It's what they'll do next
    I got a hunch.

    They can't tell the truth;
    It would cost them the youth,
    Middle-class, and the elders,
    And voters without a million tax-shelters.

    So they'll lie and they'll lie and they'll lie and they'll lie
    And that's all that they'll do
    'Til the day WE die.

  • biggerbox on May 21, 2011 11:49 AM:

    The spectacle of Republicans flailing about now that an idea that it's apostasy to believe what was mainstream Republican policy a couple years ago is quite amusing.

    If only we could convince the teabaggers that some other basic, sensible thing was the most heinous and unconstitutional Obama-fascist thing in the world. Like say, the law of gravity. It sure would be funny to see all these candidates climbing into little balloon chairs, and declaring all those videos of them standing on two feet to be liberal media distortions.

  • Rick Massimo on May 21, 2011 12:11 PM:

    "Flip-flopping can be embarrassing for a presidential candidate, but dishonesty has the potential to be far more damaging."

    That's one of those statements that should be true, but can you cite a single presidential election in the past couple of decades where that has proven to be true?

    "The spectacle of Republicans flailing about now that an idea that it's apostasy to believe what was mainstream Republican policy a couple years ago is quite amusing."

    It's even more amusing to the Ryan budget plan go from pie-in-the-sky, no-chance-of-passing theorizing to GOP gospel in about six months - even as (or, come to think of it, maybe precisely because) it is clearer than ever that it will never pass.

  • Cugel on May 21, 2011 12:12 PM:

    "Hypocrisy" "dishonesty" "inconsistency" -- when have any of these things been anything but a BENEFIT to a Republican candidate?

    This entire article proceeds from the FALSE premise that Republican primary voters care AT ALL about logic, consistency, or reason!

    Huntsman can just say "I was wrong then and I'm right now" and they'll shrug their shoulders.

    Reality after all, has a well known liberal bias.

  • ManOutOfTime on May 21, 2011 12:15 PM:

    Sorry, but I call IOKIYAR. All the CW you cite in re: lying and flip-flopping only sticks to Dems, who are known far and wide as flip-floppers because Maureen Dowd said Gore and Kerry said so.

    GOPers are framed as live-by-their-word Daddies, therefore when they dissemble and flip-flop they aren't really doing either one. They are also not fiscally irresponsible, misogynistic, or racist - so they are free to be all of the above without consequence.

    Lakoff's "frames" theory gets more evidence by the day.

  • withay on May 21, 2011 12:23 PM:

    Romney-Huntsman will be the ticket.

  • nemisten on May 21, 2011 12:57 PM:

    Lying is only a problem for people with consciences.

  • Barbara on May 21, 2011 1:00 PM:

    On the plane home from DFW the other night I started talking to the guy sitting next to me and he said he thought people were starting to accept the idea of mandates, and I said, as I say to anyone who fixates on mandates at all: "Do you actually know anyone who wouldn't buy insurance if they could afford it?" And he started laughing.

    Fixating on the mandate is just another way of avoiding what exactly is supposed to happen when an uninsured person gets really sick. I hate these people and the more reasonable they seemed in the past only makes me hate them more after they start spouting idiocy.

  • PQuincy on May 21, 2011 2:22 PM:

    WWJDHCT -- I love it!

    Except, wouldn't it be, "WhoM would Jesus deny health care to"...or, come to think of it:

    TWWJDHC

    "To whom would Jesus deny health care?"

  • Robert Waldmann on May 21, 2011 2:40 PM:

    "Huntsman ... dogged Romney" could be the first thing historians write about the 2012 Presidential campaign.

    What is Huntsman's aim ? There is no chance he will be nominated. Well maybe, just maybe, his aim is to split the vote for technocratic but very dishonest flip-flopping Mormons. If his aim were anything but drawing votes away from Romney, he would have to be a fool, which he isn't.

    If he didn't seem to be an honest person (as liars go) I would almost suspect that he is just doing this because some other hopeful has paid him to dog Romney.

    See also Bachman Grizzlies Palin

    and Daniels sloths Pawlenty.

  • am on May 21, 2011 4:03 PM:

  • captain dan on May 21, 2011 4:20 PM:

    What kept Huntsman from being a Democrat? Is he antiabortion? Or was his father a Republican?

  • Kitsune on May 21, 2011 4:30 PM:

    If only there were some sort of rule about bearing false witness or something that would encourage people to be honest. Oh well...

  • T-Rex on May 21, 2011 4:48 PM:

    Oh get real. Huntsman and Romney are white Republicans. That's the difference between their health care plans and Obama's, and they'll get a complete pass.

  • ManOutOfTime on May 21, 2011 5:20 PM:

    @Robert Waldmann - Gingrich Batshits Paul? Cain Trumps - er - Trump?

  • E Grim on May 21, 2011 6:14 PM:

    I recall that Obama also changed his mind about individual mandates. During the primaries, he was fairly adamant against them. It wasn't until sometime during the general election that he realized their necessity to any health care overhaul.

    The Republicans have spotted this weakness and are very likely to exploit those sound bites during the debates.

  • exlibra on May 21, 2011 6:46 PM:

    Past support of mandates may "kill" Huntsman in '12 but, by '16 -- which I believe is his real object -- he'll be able to brag about it. By then, most people will have gotten used to the idea, because it will have been explained countless times, so that everyone knows the whys and wherefores of it and, also-too, by then it will have been implemented for a couple of years, without the sky falling.

    Meanwhile, both his '12 flip-flopping and his '12 statements -- which were never meant to be factual in the first place -- will have either been forgotten or else filed under the "every politician does it" category. Ie, they won't count, having dissolved in the murky soup of collective memory. Or, as Captcha would have it: "proved fingsol" (they'll have been proved to be effing soluble)

  • SaintZak on May 21, 2011 8:27 PM:

    "Past support of mandates may "kill" Huntsman in '12 but, by '16 -- which I believe is his real object"

    I think that might be right, but I still think the second the election is called in '12, "Jeb Bush '16" begins and it will be non-stop and relentless until the polls close in 2016. The Democrats had better start lining someone up for 2016, but the Jeb Bush Express is going to leave the station November '12.

    Huntsman. I think a lot people people are looking at him as The Great White Hope, but he's got way too much back tracking to do. His campaign, even if he somehow got the nomination, would be in defense mode the whole time.

  • HenryEdward on May 21, 2011 10:21 PM:

    I worked in the group of people who designed the Utah plan. Pay close attention to what he is saying, because in reality he did not push this with the legislature. He is parsing the same way Obama or any other successful politician parses. My progressive bonafides are completely in order, and I pine for Huntsman to enter the race. I would not vote for him, but it would be a clarion call that their is a contingent in the Republican party that honestly is approaching governing and policy. Seriously, he is the real deal. In person he is exactly as he appears and acts on camera. There was much he did not push with the legislature - I know, I have known him as a person and politician for years.

    Steve keeps asking for better Republicans, Huntsman is the real deal. He should make Democrats shake in our boots, but also know that he would not screw everything if elected. His real goal is most likely 2016, but he has to get in the queue now.

  • bigtuna on May 22, 2011 10:56 AM:

    I was at a dinner and discussed HCR with a state rep at around the same time. I KNOW FOR A FACT that he, and other Utah repubs., were enamored with a "modified Swiss-style system" of health care, in which there was some sort private sector effort, + an individual mandate, and other elements. I am pretty sure this was discussed amongst the republicans during the Huntsman reign.


    Umm ... and could we be clear as to why Hunstman has money? His father was an inventor, and they made their money with chemicals, which have some unique baggage when it comes to health issues ...

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