I think that the broad thrust of this article by Ezra Klein is largely wrong. I don't think Republican politicians have convinced themselves that the individual mandate is a bad idea. I do think Republican politicians think it is worth saying that the individual mandate is unconstitutional--because there may be five judges who will say that is is unconstitutional, and if they do, then it is. "Motivated reasoning" plays a much, much, much smaller part in the current mishegas than Ezra Klein thinks it does.
Certainly in private Republicans willing to talk about policy will admit that, yes, if Romney had won the 2008 election, nearly all the Republian politicians now condemning nationwide RomneyCare would be its biggest boosters.
The mandate made its political début in a 1989 Heritage Foundation brief titled “Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans,” as a counterpoint to the single-payer system and the employer mandate, which were favored in Democratic circles. In the brief, Stuart Butler, the foundation’s health-care expert, argued:
Many states now require passengers in automobiles to wear seat-belts for their own protection. Many others require anybody driving a car to have liability insurance. But neither the federal government nor any state requires all households to protect themselves from the potentially catastrophic costs of a serious accident or illness. Under the Heritage plan, there would be such a requirement….
Ten years later, Senator Ron Wyden… began building a proposal around the individual mandate, and tested it out on both Democrats and Republicans. “Between 2004 and 2008, I saw over eighty members of the Senate, and there were very few who objected,” Wyden says. In December, 2006, he unveiled the Healthy Americans Act. In May, 2007, Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican, who had been a sponsor of the Chafee bill, joined him. Wyden-Bennett was eventually co-sponsored by eleven Republicans and nine Democrats…. In a June, 2009, interview on “Meet the Press,” Mitt Romney, who, as governor of Massachusetts, had signed a universal health-care bill with an individual mandate, said that Wyden-Bennett was a plan “that a number of Republicans think is a very good health-care plan—one that we support.”...
Democrats lining up behind the Republican-crafted mandate, and Republicans declaring it not just inappropriate policy but contrary to the wishes of the Founders—shocked Wyden. “I would characterize the Washington, D.C., relationship with the individual mandate as truly schizophrenic,” he said. It was not an isolated case. In 2007, both Newt Gingrich and John McCain wanted a cap-and-trade program in order to reduce carbon emissions. Today, neither they nor any other leading Republicans support cap-and-trade. In 2008, the Bush Administration proposed, pushed, and signed the Economic Stimulus Act, a deficit-financed tax cut designed to boost the flagging economy. Today, few Republicans admit that a deficit-financed stimulus can work. Indeed, with the exception of raising taxes on the rich, virtually every major policy currently associated with the Obama Administration was, within the past decade, a Republican idea in good standing….
Orin Kerr says that, in the two years since he gave the individual mandate only a one-per-cent chance of being overturned, three key things have happened. First, congressional Republicans made the argument against the mandate a Republican position. Then it became a standard conservative-media position. “That legitimized the argument in a way we haven’t really seen before,” Kerr said. “We haven’t seen the media pick up a legal argument and make the argument mainstream by virtue of media coverage.” Finally, he says, “there were two conservative district judges who agreed with the argument, largely echoing the Republican position and the media coverage. And, once you had all that, it really became a ballgame.”
Jack Balkin, a Yale law professor, agrees. “Once Republican politicians say this is unconstitutional, it gets repeated endlessly in the partisan media that’s friendly to the Republican Party”—Fox News, conservative talk radio, and the like—“and, because this is now the Republican Party’s position, the mainstream media needs to repeatedly explain the claims to their readers. That further moves the arguments from off the wall to on the wall, because, if you’re reading articles in the Times describing the case against the mandate, you assume this is a live controversy.” Of course, Balkin says, “if the courts didn’t buy this, it wouldn’t get anywhere.”
But the courts are not as distant from the political process as some like to think….
What is notable about the conservative response to the individual mandate is not only the speed with which a legal argument that was considered fringe in 2010 had become mainstream by 2012; it’s the implication that the Republicans spent two decades pushing legislation that was in clear violation of the nation’s founding document…. In February, 2012, Stuart Butler, the author of the Heritage Foundation brief that first proposed the mandate, wrote an op-ed for USA Today in which he recanted that support. “I’ve altered my views on many things,” he wrote. “The individual mandate in health care is one of them.” Senator Orrin Hatch, who had been a co-sponsor of the Chafee bill, emerged as one of the mandate’s most implacable opponents in 2010, writing in The Hill that to come to “any other conclusion” than that the mandate is unconstitutional “requires treating the Constitution as the servant, rather than the master, of Congress.” Mitt Romney, who had both passed an individual mandate as governor and supported Wyden-Bennett, now calls Obama’s law an “unconstitutional power grab from the states,” and has promised, if elected, to begin repealing the law “on Day One.”
Even Bob Bennett, who was among the most eloquent advocates of the mandate, voted, in 2009, to call it unconstitutional….
All this suggests that the old model of compromise is going to have a very difficult time in today’s polarized political climate. Because it’s typically not in the minority party’s interest to compromise with the majority party on big bills—elections are a zero-sum game, where the majority wins if the public thinks it has been doing a good job—Washington’s motivated-reasoning machine is likely to kick into gear on most major issues. “Reasoning can take you wherever you want to go,” Haidt warns. “Can you see your way to an individual mandate, if it’s a way to fight single payer? Sure. And so, when it was strategically valuable Republicans could believe it was constitutional and good. Then Obama proposes the idea. And then the question becomes not ‘Can you believe in this?’ but ‘Must you believe it?’ ”
And that means that you can’t assume that policy-based compromises that made sense at the beginning will survive to the end, because by that time whichever group has an interest in not compromising will likely have convinced itself that the compromise position is an awful idea…