WASHINGTON -- Ever since former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. began his public deliberations on whether he would seek the GOP nomination for president, he has had to refute claims that he not only considered an individual mandate as part of Utah's health care reform, but that he openly supported such an initiative.
In various statements to The Huffington Post in the last few weeks, Huntsman and his campaign have repeatedly batted down the idea of such support. They argued that the now politically toxic mandate was merely one of many health care reform ideas he examined.
Huntsman gave a lengthy denial during his first swing through New Hampshire.
"As governor, you've got to explore every approach, every policy option there is," he said in Hancock. "You'd be disingenuous as a leader if you didn't. So when you're doing something as important as health care reform -- and something as important as closing the gap on the uninsured -- you've got to live with the idea of what mandates will do, how people will respond, the benefits or burdens to small businesses. And after you argue it with all the experts, then you've got to come up with what you think is the best solution."
But Huntsman did more than just consider a mandate. On March 19, 2008, he signed into law health care reform legislation that included a requirement that the state study "the costs and benefits associated with (a) different forms of mandates for individual responsibility; and (b) potential enforcement mechanisms for individual responsibility."
Huntsman's spokesperson Tim Miller said in an email that this mandate legislation is perfectly in line with what the former governor has stated all along.
"This was a study bill which created a task force to review health care reform options," he wrote. "As Gov. Huntsman has said, he and the legislature considered a number of options -- good and bad -- as part of a comprehensive review process. In the end they decided on free-market legislation without mandates that has since become the model for conservative health care reform."
Judi Hilman, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project, said "the bill is seen today as launching health care reform in Utah. It is not just a study bill." She added that an initial draft of the bill was reviewed by advocates and other stakeholders in November 2007.
The original legislation contained a mandate. But the bill got watered down, and the mandate was demoted to a study item.
After Huntsman signed the reforms into law, the legislature created a health care reform task force. Judging from the minutes of the task force meetings, the legislature simply heard testimony on mandates. But the task force never produced an actual study on the issue.
The mandate is the heart of the conservative critique of President Barack Obama's health care reforms. It is also the essential underpinning for the various lawsuits filed by Virginia and other states in their effort to repeal Obama's landmark legislation.
But the mandate didn't use to be a Republican anathema.
The problem facing potential GOP candidates like Huntsman is that the mandate had been a bedrock conservative, Heritage Foundation-supported idea, and an essential piece of former Governor Mitt Romney's formerly-celebrated Massachusetts Connector plan. Long before Obama became president, a lot of conservatives liked the mandate -- including Huntsman.