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The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Newton Leroy Gingrich

Newt Gingrich

First Posted: 05/20/11 03:25 PM ET Updated: 07/20/11 06:12 AM ET

As everyone knows, this was the week that the federal government hit its deficit ceiling. That was the story everyone thought would dominate the week. Yet, somehow, Newt Gingrich surprised everyone by managing to hit his own first. And in the first full week of his life as an official candidate for president, too! For well over a decade, Gingrich had flirted with running for president, and just over a week ago, he finally decided to officially take the plunge. But by the time the sun had set on his campaign's first weekend, political touts had cause to wonder if his aspirations were over. Let us now pause and take stock in the bizarre and awful week of self-inflicting wounds and puzzling decisions that the former speaker of the House has had, shall we?

SUNDAY, MAY 15

Newt Gingrich's troubles began Sunday morning on the set of "Meet The Press," a show on which he had made 34 prior appearances, and which typically applies all the journalistic pressure of a day spa. His appearance might have ended up being noteworthy only for the contretemps between Gingrich and host David Gregory over Newt's racial dog-whistling. But then, Gregory brought up a generic question on entitlements:

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DAVID GREGORY: What about entitlements? The Medicare trust fund and stories that have come out of the weekend is now going to be depleted by 2024, five years earlier than predicted. Do you think that Republicans ought to buck the public opposition and really move forward to completely change Medicare? Turn it into a voucher program where you give seniors some--

NEWT GINGRICH:
No.

DAVID GREGORY:
--premium support so that they can go out and buy private insurance?

NEWT GINGRICH:
I don't think right wing social engineering is any more desirable than left wing social engineering. I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate. I think we need a national conversation to get to a better Medicare system with more choices for seniors.

But there're specific things you can do. At the Center for Health Transformation, which I helped found, we published a book called Stop Paying the Crooks. And we thought that was a clear enough, simple enough idea, even for Washington. We -- between Medicare and Medicaid we pay between $70 and $120 billion a year to crooks.

And IBM has agreed to help solve it. American Express has agreed to help solve it. Visa's agreed to help solve it. You can't get anybody in this town to look at it. That's almost a trillion dollars over a decade. So there're things you can do to improve Medicare--

DAVID GREGORY:
But not what Paul Ryan is suggesting which is--

NEWT GINGRICH:
I think that--

DAVID GREGORY:
--completely changing--

NEWT GINGRICH:
--I think--

DAVID GREGORY:
--Medicare?

NEWT GINGRICH:
I think that that is too big a jump. I think what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options. Not one where you suddenly impose upon you -- I don't want to -- I'm against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change. And I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.

DAVID GREGORY:
Let me ask you about the issue of taxes.

I offer up the full transcript to make a point that will be important later. Gingrich, in describing Paul Ryan's plan as "right-wing social engineering" that was "radical" and "too big a jump," was what is known in the world of sports as an unforced error. Gregory didn't set him up. He asked a generic question about entitlements -- one that was teed up in a conservative frame -- concern about the time frame in which Medicare will be depleted. (Conservatives on the stump these days are parrying citizen outrage over Medicare's elimination under the Ryan plan by insisting that Medicare is a goner in its current form.)

Gingrich wasn't prompted or directed or led by trickery into speaking about his opinions on the Ryan plan. And if Gregory was aware that his guest had just uttered a sentence that would come to define his week, he certainly didn't let on, quickly moving the conversation to a new topic.

Gregory's panel didn't seem to recognize what had happened, either. Mark Halperin said that Gingrich left him with the impression that he knew "what he has to do to win." "Whenever you asked him a tough question ... he smiles and he tried to stay calm and not be a flame thrower," said Halperin, blissfully clueless about the flames that had just been thrown. Matt Bai would go on to call him "thoughtful" and "history-minded." Helene Cooper called him "one of the smartest guys in politics," and said that he had shown "discipline" during his interview.

Peggy Noonan said that Gingrich was "one of the best explainers of generally conservative views and philosophical starting points." Hilariously, she said that after mentioning that Gingrich's interview caused a normally "very busy green room" at "Meet The Press" to pause in rapt attention in order to marvel at Gingrich. And yet no one seemed to notice that he called the Ryan plan for Medicare "radical ... right-wing social engineering!"

This is all worth bringing up because the allegations that came out later in the week that Gingrich's criticism of the Ryan plan occurred because he had been lured into some clever "gotcha" question is utterly ludicrous. There was no hook-baiting, no follow-up, no surprise, no dismay, no anything! Everyone at "Meet The Press" sat in worshipful attention, watching Gingrich speak, and everyone went home without having even noticed what the man had said!

But it didn't take long for everyone not affiliated with "Meet The Press" to notice. Minutes after the show ended, Andrew Stiles of the National Review characterized Gingrich's remarks as "tack[ing] left." By the early afternoon, his colleague Robert Costa had a piece up about the "ongoing saga" between Gingrich and Ryan, describing a complicated history of Gingrich's sidling up to Ryan's ideas, only to draw distinctions at other times. This set the stage for Gingrich to get critiqued by the people who would normally be his ideological allies.

MONDAY, MAY 16

Monday morning, Slate's Dave Weigel weighed in, describing the "Meet The Press" appearance largely as watching the "wheels on the bus go clunk, crunch, splatter." Weigel was surprised by Gingrich's stance, given the fact that a fortnight before calling Ryan's Medicare plan "radical," he has asserted that he would have voted for it. Weigel noted that Gingrich still had a little bit of "wiggle room," but his bottom line was still bad news for Ryan fans: "Being generous to Gingrich, the interview reads like he went for buzzier, more declarative language rather than finesse. The result of that: Air cover for Democrats attacking the plan."

As you might imagine, Paul Ryan didn't take Gingrich's remarks too kindly, telling Raymond Arroyo, filling in for Laura Ingraham on her eponymous radio show, "With allies like that, who needs the left?"

And with that, the gloves came off. Fellow 2012er Rick Santorum, who's not been shy about battling the big dogs in the race, laced into Gingrich in a statement, saying "his criticism of Congressman Paul Ryan's Medicare reform plan yesterday was a big departure from Speaker Gingrich's often sound policy proposals." Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.), who's managed to position herself as a 2012 kingmaker of sorts (and who has helped make devotion to Ryan's plan a de facto campaign "litmus test") wasn't any nicer:

"What he said was absolutely unfortunate. Here you've got Representative Ryan trying to bring common sense to this world of insanity, and Newt absolutely cut him off at the knees. When you have a conservative fighting for real change, the last thing we need is a presidential candidate cutting him off at the knees."

(You'll want to remember that "cut off at the knees" line for later.)

The editors at the Wall Street Journal offered a damning take of their own:

The irony is that Mr. Gingrich's own history of political failure on health care has made Mr. Ryan's proposals all the more necessary. In 1995, Mr. Gingrich pushed a "Medicare Plus" reform through Congress that shared many of the same features as Mr. Ryan's. It would have cut $270 billion from Medicare over seven years, while giving seniors a premium-support choice to join HMOs. President Clinton vetoed it, which along with Mr. Gingrich's refusal to compromise helped precipitate the government shutdown.

And then came Charles Krauthammer, predicting nothing short of total doom:

This is a big deal. He's done. He didn't have a big chance from the beginning, but now it's over.

Apart from being contradictory and incoherent, as we saw in those two sound bites you showed where he contradicted himself in the course of one day on the individual mandate, calling the Republican plan, which all but four Republican members of the House have now endorsed and will be running on, calling it radical and right-wing social engineering is deadly.

I think every one of these Republican candidates running for the House is going to have a Democratic opponent who's going to run an ad that you can write today. It's going to start "Even the conservative Newt Gingrich, the former leader of the Republicans in the House, says it's radical, it's social engineering." Reagan had the 11th Commandment: 'Thou shalt not attack fellow Republicans.' This is a capital offense against the 11th Commandment. He won't recover.

The Gingrich campaign entered some sort of modified, limited walk-back mode, with campaign spokesman Rick Tyler insisting on one hand that there was "little daylight between Ryan and Gingrich," and on the other hand that Ryan's plan was still a "political mistake." This was Tyler at his most coherent, too. By the end of the week, Tyler would start issuing statements that made it seem like he had taken complete leave of the planet.

As the right pilloried Gingrich, Democrats mostly just popped some corn and enjoyed the show. But beneath the war of words, practical damage was being done to Gingrich's presidential hopes. As Jon Ward reported later in the week, within 24 hours of Gingrich's Meet The Press appearance, 13 of the 18 cochairs the Gingrich campaign had lined up for a future fundraising event had pulled out.

"The last 48 hours have called into question if Newt can even make it to July 4, because his fundraising is going to dry up," said one veteran Republican strategist. "No serious finance bundler is now going to step forward in such an organized campaign and take a leadership role."

TUESDAY, MAY 17

Tuesday morning, America got to bear witness to the most uncomfortable handshake in the world. It all went down while Gingrich was stumping in Iowa. There, he met an Iowa Republican, who was not too happy about Gingrich's performance on "Meet The Press":

Voter: Speaker Gingrich, what you just did to Paul Ryan is unforgivable.

Gingrich: I didn't do anything to Paul Ryan!

Voter: Yes, you did. You undercut him and his allies in the house.

Gingrich: No, I -

Voter: You're an embarrassment to our party.

Gingrich: I'm sorry you feel that way.

Voter: Why don't you get out before you make a bigger fool of yourself.

Notice that the Iowan hewed pretty closely to Nikki Haley's "cut off at the knees" line! That's how Gingrich's comments on Ryan were literally playing in Dubuque. Something clearly needed to be done! And in typical fashion, the Gingrich camp decided to start blaming the media, for pointing cameras at him and airing his remarks in their complete form and in context.

Wednesday afternoon, Gingrich mounted that defense on the Bob Gallagher show, saying, "We're in a phase here where, if you are a conservative, you better expect gotcha press and they took dramatically out of context what I said and tried to make it dramatically a fight between me and Paul Ryan."

But as I've already pointed out, the questions asked by Gregory were not "gotcha" questions and no one on "Meet The Press" even paid particular attention to the remarks that would eventually inflame Gingrich's world with controversy. Nevertheless, Gingrich elected to continue along these lines, blaming the media for his unforced error.

And yet, at the same time, Gingrich was still seeking contrition from Paul Ryan:

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich apologized in a telephone call to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Tuesday afternoon for his remarks on "Meet the Press," where the presidential candidate referred to Ryan's Medicare proposal as "radical change."

"Newt apologized," said Rick Tyler, his press secretary and longtime aide. "The call went very well."

So, if it was David Gregory's fault, what did Newt have to apologize for? That question would eventually be raised.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 18

Gingrich's deflections weren't doing much to stave off the embarrassment of being called on the carpet by Iowa's new viral video star-voter. And it wasn't keeping him safe from criticism either. On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor piled on, saying that Gingrich was "out of line" and taking Ryan's side in a Wednesday morning interview with Politico's Jake Sherman.

So it was time for a new approach.

A few weeks ago, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) screwed up, big time, by taking to the Senate floor and telling the assembled lawmakers a bunch of falsehoods about Planned Parenthood. When he was called out for doing so, his spokesperson offered up a unique defense, saying that the remarks "were not intended as a factual statement." That deflection brought Kyl no end of mockery, but Gingrich decided that he'd roll the dice and try the same thing.

I want to make sure every House Republican is protected from some kind of dishonest Democratic ad. So let me say on the record, any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood. Because I have said publicly those words were inaccurate and unfortunate and I'm prepared to stand up... When I make a mistake -- and I'm going to on occassion -- I want to share with the American people "that was a mistake" because that way we can have an honest conversation.

According to this logic, by posting the transcript of Gingrich's actual remarks above, I am a liar! And again, it sort of makes you wonder why he was apologizing to Paul Ryan.

The Democrat's "message guru" in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, wasn't having it, and went as far to connect Gingrich's Meet The Press remarks with the concept known as the "Kinsley gaffe":

"He is the Republican canary in the coal mine," Schumer said. "When that canary speaks truth, he is snuffed out. What Newt seems to realize is that it would be impossible to win the White House if they embrace the Ryan plan. If Republicans make endorsing the Ryan plan the standard in the Republican primary, it will make the nominee unelectable."

"I feel for Speaker Gingrich," Schumer continued. " He's entered the race only to find out that the Republican Party has been pushed considerably futher to the right than the party he led in the 1990s. His party has turned him into a political outcast."

"We will not miss a single opportunity of reminding the public what it means for seniors," Schumer concluded.

For his part, David Gregory began pushing back on this as well, telling everyone that no one should blame him for Gingrich's problems. (Don't worry, David! I definitely do not in any way hold you responsible for any of this!)

But Wednesday was not yet over, and that afternoon, the story took a new and wonderful turn when our own Michael Calderone reached out to Gingrich's camp, and got this utterly mind-bending statement from campaign spokesman Rick Tyler:

"The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding," Tyler wrote. "Washington cannot tolerate threats from outsiders who might disrupt their comfortable world. The firefight started when the cowardly sensed weakness. They fired timidly at first, then the sheep not wanting to be dropped from the establishment's cocktail party invite list unloaded their entire clip, firing without taking aim their distortions and falsehoods. Now they are left exposed by their bylines and handles. But surely they had killed him off. This is the way it always worked. A lesser person could not have survived the first few minutes of the onslaught. But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead those who won't be intimated by the political elite and are ready to take on the challenges America faces."

I'm a little surprised Tyler didn't continue on by saying, "Newt Gingrich has seen things you people wouldn't believe! Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."

Tyler's bizarre statement had two immediate impacts. First, everyone in the world began making fun of Newt Gingrich and Rick Tyler. Twitter straight up blew up with jokes about "minions" and "literati." Columnists snarked out Newt's claim of being an "outsider." Artist Jon White turned Tyler's statement into a hilarious comic. And Stephen Colbert, sensing the fullness of the moment, invited John Lithgow onto his show, to give Tyler's words the dramatic voice they deserved:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
John Lithgow Performs Gingrich Press Release
www.colbertnation.com
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The second effect of Rick Tyler the Creator's extreme histronics is that it apparently inspired Gingrich to adjust his response to all of this by having a full-on ego explosion, which would come to fully enrapture the universe on Thursday.

THURSDAY, MAY 19

On Thursday, Gingrich adjusted once again, this time telling people that all of his problems simply stemmed from the fact that nobody was capable of grasping how inhumanly awesome he was.

"It's going to take a while for the news media to realize that you're covering something that happens once or twice in a century, a genuine grass-roots campaign of very big ideas," Gingrich said, according to the Associated Press. "I expect it to take a while for it to sink in."

[...]

"My reaction is if you're the candidate of very dramatic change, it you're the candidate of really new ideas, you have to assume there's a certain amount of clutter and confusion and it takes a while to sort it all out, because you are doing something different," Gingrich told the press.

Yeah, man! Y'all just can't appreciate with you homo sapien brains just how real Newt Gingrich is! Your naked eyes can't see the colors of the world reflecting his body! Your ears can't discern the nuances of the divine truth-bombs he's always uttering! The touch of his hand is like the touch of no other -- you don't know whether you want to embrace him forever or ostracize him immediately. That's how complicated he is! Newt Gingrich is the political equivalent of Heinlein's Valentine Michael Smith, and y'all just can't grok him in his fullness, yo!

And yet, Gingrich would make one more attempt at rehabilitation, by explaining himself to the high priest of conservative cant, Rush Limbaugh. In an interview, Limbaugh pursued the matter, asking Gingrich to explain what he meant by "social engineering."

"It's very straightforward. It's when the government comes in and tells you how to live your life and what you're gonna do -- whether the values that lead it to do that are left-wing values, or the values that lead it to do that are right-wing values," said Gingrich. "I believe in personal freedom. I believe in your right to lead your life. I believe that we are endowed by the Declaration of Independence, by our Creator, with the right to pursue happiness. And I want a government that is much more humble about its ability to tell you what to do, whether it's people on either side of the ideological spectrum.

"And by the way, it was not a reference to Paul Ryan. There was no reference to Paul Ryan in that answer."

Limbaugh's follow-up? "Well then what did you apologize to him about?" Gingrich would go on to explain that away by saying that his remarks had been misinterpreted and that this was "causing the House Republicans trouble." But, yeah, I think I'm going to have to go with Rush Limbaugh on this one!

What may have been lost, in all of this week of agony and agita, is that despite the fact that Gingrich filled the newshole with increasingly demented displays of hubris and inexplicable deflections, he never actually declared that he supported Paul Ryan's plan! This is something that the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler noticed, and tried to explain to everyone:

The question that he has not answered is: Do you still believe the Ryan plan is "radical" or "right-wing social engineering"?

In a conversation with bloggers Tuesday, for instance, Gingrich persisted in calling the plan radical: "Part of what I'm worried about is compelling people to go through a radical change that has not been tested."

In another conversation Tuesday, this time with radio host William Bennett, Gingrich listed a long series of caveats before saying he could support the Ryan plan: "To the degree we are in the middle of a national conversation and the plan is open to change and our goal is to move forward to modify and improve the plan, as opposed to sell it or pass it, I am for it."

Yet, at another point, he emphasized to Bennett that he was not for the plan: "I am for the process of improving it. I did not say I was for the plan as it currently exists. I think that is an important distinction."

For her part, Susteren tried to press Gingrich for some kind of explanation: "What don't you agree with within the Ryan bill?"

But she did not really get an answer.

"The country has to look at it. The country has to ask questions about it," Gingrich replied, before diverting into gobbledygook about the need for choices and saving $70 to $120 billion from fraud and abuse. (Gingrich often uses these figures but they are vastly overstated, as Factcheck.org has pointed out.)

The closest Gingrich came to saying he was wrong was this statement: "Any ad which quotes what I said Sunday is a falsehood and because I have said publicly, those words were inaccurate and unfortunate." But as far as we can tell, he did not provide an "accurate" description of what he thinks about the Ryan plan.

And so Friday has arrived, following days of Gingrich offering the world excuses, deflections, apologies, ego-trips, and any number of utterly astounding statements and actions. But the week has essentially ended as it began, with Gingrich still four-square behind the notion that Ryan's Medicare plan is a "radical" form of "right-wing social engineering" that constitutes "too big a jump" for the country to take.

I guess there was one bright moment in all of this. Gingrich did get a stirring defense by walking-monument-to-credibility Michael Steele:

And keep in mind about the Ryan budget, a lot of the people that are sort of running around and trying to stir up a little cock fight about what Newt Gingrich said, a year a go were saying that the Ryan plan was not their plan.

Yep. This was a week that the use of the term "cock fight" was one of the least interesting things that happened in politics.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not? Also, please send tips to tv@huffingtonpost.com -- learn more about our media monitoring project here.]

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