Mitt Romney was the governor of Massachusetts, a liberal state. Newt Gingrich has been one of the leaders of the conservative movement, as a member of Congress and speaker of the House. Based upon these facts, Gingrich would presumably be the most conservative. The answer to which candidate is most conservative, though, is not so simple.
One of the main areas where Romney has been fighting against the notion that he is not a true conservative is health care. As governor of Massachusetts, he signed a health care bill that included an individual mandate to purchase health insurance.
The Affordable Care Act, signed by President Obama in 2009, was modeled after the Massachusetts plan and included an individual mandate. Conservatives railed against many aspects of the Affordable Care Act, which was dubbed “Obamacare,” but the individual mandate became one of the central criticisms. They argued that the mandate took away personal liberty and the federal government does not have the authority to require everyone to purchase health insurance.
However, the Massachusetts health reforms, it turns out, had its roots in none other than Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. In the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton put first lady Hillary Clinton in charge of a task force that would make recommendations to reform the nation's health care system. Both Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation put forth alternatives at the time that included an individual mandate, a fact that Romney reminded Gingrich of during a debate in mid-October.
“We got the idea of an individual mandate from you,” Romney said after Gingrich called the Massachusetts plan “one more big government bureaucratic, high cost system.”
While the individual mandate is in opposition to the conservative value of individual liberty, it upholds a separate conservative value – personal responsibility. This is the value that Romney discusses when explaining why he thought it was “right for Massachusetts.”
All hospitals must provide emergency care, regardless of their ability to pay. The cost of caring for those who have no health insurance is shifted to those who have health insurance. Some conservatives have argued in favor of an individual mandate, therefore, based upon the notion that everyone needs to take personal responsibility to provide for their health care.
Gingrich now says he believes the individual mandate was a bad idea, and Romney says that what was right for Massachusetts is not right for every state and should not be mandated by the federal government.
On the issue of immigration, Gingrich would like to provide an opportunity for legal status to some undocumented immigrants who have been living in the United States for 20 to 25 years, and would like to provide legal status to temporary immigrant workers, known as the “red card solution.”
Romney is opposed to providing any preferential treatment to immigrants residing in the United States without documentation.
It is difficult to say which candidate holds the conservative view on this position, because conservatives are split on this issue. Gingrich's views are more closely held by the pro-business wing of the conservative movement, exemplified, in part, by the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. Business owners tend to prefer a more free-flowing labor market, which the “red card solution” would provide.
On the other hand, many movement conservatives, such as those in the Tea Party, will favor Romney's view. This is especially true for the second part of Gingrich's proposals – provide a “path to legality,” which movement conservatives would call “amnesty,” for some undocumented immigrants.
Some, but not all, religious conservatives may also favor Gingrich's views on immigration. Both the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention have issued statements favoring immigration reforms that recognize the dignity of immigrants. These statements, though, lacked specificity on which proposals would qualify.
Other than those issues, Gingrich and Romney have similar platforms. Both candidates want to lower tax rates and simplify the tax code, increase domestic energy production, and repeal the Affordable Care Act, for instance.
While Gingrich has been an important figure in the conservative movement over the last 30 years, he has also shown himself to be a pragmatic politician. He has worked with Nancy Pelosi on environmental reforms and Al Sharpton on education reforms. While he believes in less government, he also believes that there are some areas where government can improve our lives. In his current platform, for instance, Gingrich calls for research on the brain, in an effort to find cures to some of the costliest diseases.
Romney has far less political experience than Gingrich, just one gubernatorial term, making it more difficult to judge what type of president he would be. His work experience and religion both breed conservatism. He has spent most of his work life as a businessman in the private sector and he is a lifelong active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Businessmen generally prefer conservative economic policies and Latter-day Saints are generally conservative on social issues.
A new poll released Sunday by NBC News/Marist College shows Gingrich is the Republican presidential front-runner among likely Iowa caucus goers with 26 percent support. Romney has 18 percent support.