It's rare for me to have a moment of pity for someone like Newt Gingrich, but I have to admit I'm feeling a little sorry for the guy this week. But before we delve into Newt's campaign problems in greater detail, it seems to me that most pundits are missing a big underlying new reality in the Republican Party. The focus has all been on Newt himself, what he said, and the subsequent ire directed at him by prominent Righties. But after the dust settles on the incident itself, people are going to notice the bigger fact this fracas has illuminated: Republicans are doubling down on Paul Ryan's budget rather than backing away from it, to the point where it has now become the acid test for Republicans in 2012. Which should be good news for Democrats.
But before we get to sweeping conclusions, let's review what happened to Newt. Below is the full transcript of the relevant section of Gingrich's interview last Sunday on the NBC show Meet The Press (the video is also available):
(MODERATOR) DAVID GREGORY: What about entitlements? The Medicare trust fund, in stories that have come out over 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...
FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH: Right.
GREGORY: ...some premium support and -- so that they can go out and buy private insurance?
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 are specific things you can do. At the Center for Health Transformation, which I helped found, we published a book called "Stop Paying the Crooks." We thought that was a clear enough, simple enough idea, even for Washington. We--between Medicare and Medicaid, we pay between $70 billion 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, that's almost $1 trillion over a decade. So there are things you can do to improve Medicare.
GREGORY: But not what Paul Ryan is suggesting, which is completely changing Medicare.
GINGRICH: I, I think that, I think, 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 the -- I don't want to -- I'm against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.
That's what caused all of the fuss. David Gregory, true to form, didn't realize the momentous nature of what had just been said (he quickly moved to another subject in the interview itself, failing to follow up on Gingrich's statements). There's even a new segment (for the past few weeks) at the end of Meet The Press (which takes self-reverence to new heights of absurdity) where Gregory holds aloft a printout of someone who has posted a story online -- during the show's airtime -- about something significant that was said on the show. This week, Gregory posted a tweet from someone on his interview panel sent from the green room while preparing for their appearance -- notching the self-love up even further. Significantly, Gregory didn't mention the one quote which would set the Republican world afire in the next few days.
Gingrich was roundly criticized on the Right for saying what he did -- so much so that he has spent the time since attempting to walk back his statements. Many Republicans seem to be jumping on the bandwagon of "Newt's campaign is now over," which seems a little premature, at least from where I sit. The incident has also led to much hilarity on the Left, who has always seen Newt as a comic figure (and who just love to watch Righty infighting, no matter what they're scrapping over).
Here's a quick quiz. Which of the following is satire from a Saturday Night Live sketch, and which is a quote from Gingrich being interviewed recently:
"Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood. Because I have said publicly those words were inaccurate."
"I just hope the lamestream media won't twist my words by repeating them verbatim."
Although the second one is obviously Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin in a mock Republican primary debate sketch (the "lamestream" kind of gives it away...), when parsed, those two statements aren't all that different. Newt is scared that Democrats are going to use his words in political ads to point out how extreme the Ryan budget truly is on Medicare. He's right to be scared, as Chuck Schumer quite gleefully pointed out to reporters (the Washington Post blog article is titled: "Schumer: You're damn right we'll use Gingrich's criticism of Ryan against the GOP").
Gingrich's statement, parsed correctly (or "translated from politicianese" perhaps) says: "I was lying last Sunday, I've said I was lying -- and I wasn't lying that second time -- therefore if Democrats try to use my words verbatim, it is a lie, because I was lying last Sunday."
His campaign is already attacking the media, in a desperate bid to reframe the debate on more comfortable Republican grounds. Here is an extraordinary statement from Gingrich's press secretary, sent to the Huffington Post in an email, which reads like a bad fantasy/adventure novel:
The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding. 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.
Wow. You've just got to love the "billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia," and all the rest of that purple prose, don't you? This is precisely why a Newt Gingrich campaign is going to be such fun for the Left. I mean, you just can't make this stuff up, folks!
Amusement aside, though, I think Senator Schumer summed the situation Newt now finds himself in the best (from that Washington Post blog article):
It was refreshing to hear such candor from a top Republican. Gingrich was saying what everyone knows to be true: The [Ryan Medicare] plan is extreme. ... He is the Republican canary in the coal mine. 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. He's entered the race only to find out that the Republican Party has been pushed considerably futher [sic] to the right than the party he led in the 1990s. His party has turned him into a political outcast.
This is true -- back in the 1990s, Newt was seen as the most radical of the Republicans. The term "bomb-thrower" was routinely used to describe him (this was pre-9/11, when such terms were used with abandon, I should mention). He was also the party's "ideas man." Since leaving Congress (under a cloud), he has striven to build up his image as "the smartest man in the room." The only problem is, now the radical ideas man in the party is Representative Paul Ryan.
The sad part -- the part that makes me actually pity Newt -- is that Gingrich was right last Sunday. He speaks from experience -- and not just general experience, but specifically on attempting to change Medicare in radical ways. He got burned back then, and his quote on Sunday seemed to acknowledge the reality that any political party seen as overreaching to the extreme will get punished by the voters. However, the Republican Party does not want to hear this right now, especially not in the midst of a primary campaign. Hence their excoriation of Newt, and hence Newt's desperate backpedaling since.
But Schumer seems to be the only one drawing the larger conclusion from the whole tiff -- that the Republican Party has now made supporting the Ryan budget its acid test for 2012. This could be suicidal, but they've decided not to back down one inch from the plan to turn Medicare into vouchers. Harry Reid is planning to hold a Senate vote on the Ryan budget before the Memorial Day break, which will put all the Republican senators on record as voting to kill Medicare as we know it. This is good politics for the Democrats.
By forcing the issue in such a major way with Gingrich, the message to the rest of the Republican candidates is loud and clear: "Support the Ryan plan -- or else." This applies to not only the presidential field, but also all the congressional candidates as well. There are other such litmus tests for Republicans, of course, but the Ryan budget is now front and center -- not just a litmus test, but the sole acid test of party acceptability for this election.
The Gingrich story will likely fade, over time. Newt's campaign is not over, no matter how many pundits declare it dead. If Sarah Palin doesn't run, Gingrich will likely be in second place soon in the polling. If he can successfully portray himself as the "anti-Romney," his campaign could become stronger over time. Should Gingrich win the nomination, his remarks may even help him in the general election campaign -- since moderation is seen in a much more positive light by independent voters than by partisan primary voters.
But whether Gingrich now rises or falls in the eyes of the Republican Party rank and file voters, the Ryan budget seems likely to become the front-and-center campaign issue for quite some time to come. Which should only serve to make Democrats very happy. By doubling down on the Ryan budget ideas, Republicans have chosen a position which is just not that popular with the public (outside of Republican primary voters, perhaps). Democrats have been trying to make the 2012 election all about the Ryan budget from the moment it was unveiled. The Republicans had seemed to pull back somewhat in the past few weeks (after they actually faced angry constituents in town hall meetings), but now such a position has become all but impossible for any Republican candidate. After all, who wants to go through what Newt is going through right now? Which, as I said, should prove to be good news for Democrats, for months to come.
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