When Newt Gingrich criticized Congressman Paul Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan and repeated his support for individual healthcare mandates this week, many conservatives expressed outrage and shock. Conservatives were right to be outraged. But they shouldn’t have been shocked.
Simply put, Newt Gingrich has never been a conservative.
Perhaps a quick primer in perception versus reality is in order. The reason most presidential candidates are considered frontrunners is because enough people keep saying they are frontrunners. For example, candidates like former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty or Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels are considered frontrunners despite having less name recognition, lesser poll numbers and less fundraising ability than some of the other supposed second or third tier candidates. Still, their perception as such continues to dictate the current reality.
The reason Newt Gingrich is considered a conservative is because enough people have always said he’s a conservative. The former House speaker rose to national prominence in the mid-1990’s championing the GOP’s “Contract with America,” spearheading the “Republican Revolution of ‘94” and earned a reputation for being one of President Bill Clinton’s harshest critics. From that time to today, Gingrich has no doubt remained one of the harshest critics of the Democratic Party.
But simply being partisan does not a conservative make. If so, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney could be considered conservatism personified. In a similar mold, Gingrich has rarely, if ever, been for smaller government. He simply believes Republicans can preside over big government more effectively.
The Ryan plan controversy is simply our latest exposure to Gingrich’s consistent big government Republican brand. There is currently an intra-GOP debate wherein most conservatives recognize Ryan’s plan as being bolder than most, but they also note that it doesn’t go nearly far enough considering that by its own projection we will still be saddled with a $23 trillion national debt in ten years. In this latter sentiment, Sen. Rand Paul and other conservative leaders have noted the relative timidity of Ryan’s plan.
Even so, at precisely the time when part of the GOP is praising Ryan for being bold and another part is worried his plan isn’t bold enough—Gingrich has already dismissed it as too “radical.” This might make conservatives angry, but it is also classic Gingrich.
If a candidate like Ron Paul is often unconventionally Republican precisely because he is willing to examine sacred cows in the name of more substantively limiting government, Gingrich’s unconventional Republican positions come from the exact opposite direction—with Newt typically taking the side of big government. For example, many conservatives were surprised to see Gingrich appearing in commercials with Nancy Pelosi sympathetic to liberal views on climate change. Conservatives shouldn’t have been surprised.
Of course, Gingrich was also a good Bush Republican in supporting TARP, the Medicare Plan D entitlement expansion and has even stated that he thinks No Child Left Behind isn’t big enough—despite the fact that virtually all conservatives now reject these big government schemes.
Again, Newt’s disagreement with Ryan’s plan is nothing new, as the traditional Goldwater/Reagan conservative Republican notion of actually reducing the size and scope of government has always been too “radical” for Gingrich. As Bob Wenzel notes at EconomicPolicyJournal.com, Gingrich’s 2012 political platform seems to be simply, again, that he’s not a Democrat:
“The Gingrich campaign strategy appears to be that he will run not on any principles, but more on the fact that he is not President Obama. A Gingrich snippet: ‘The fact is, we are not going to close the deficit and move towards a balanced budget unless we follow the policies that foster the economic growth necessary to create jobs. The first and most immediate step would be to employ the policies that encourage investment, create jobs, and reward innovation and entrepreneurship—exactly the opposite of the Obama anti-jobs policies”
Wenzel correctly analyzes, “Aside from the attack on President Obama, the underlying message here is that Gingrich wants to balance the budget not by reducing government spending, but by increasing tax revenues through more jobs. In other words, Gingrich sees no problem with the current size of government.”
Perhaps Gingrich has no problem with the current size of government because he has always exhibited an optimistic view of the transformative power of the state. For example, if generations of conservatives, from Robert Taft to Goldwater and through Reagan, have long defined themselves primarily in their opposition to post-New Deal America, Gingrich not only praises Franklin Roosevelt but seeks to attach him to Reagan. Sound weird? Wrote Gingrich in 2004: “If we can combine the persistence, optimism, technological curiosity and courage of FDR and Reagan we will meet the challenges of our generation… Understanding Reagan’s political strength is not possible without understanding how much of his patterns and techniques grew out of FDR.”
A conservative critic of Reagan might note that despite that president’s limited government rhetoric, the Gipper actually did little to dismantle the modern state that remains in large part an outgrowth of FDR’s regime. Gingrich finds Reagan praiseworthy exactly to the extent that he might have resembled Roosevelt. This is not a conservative sentiment. Not even close.
It should not surprise conservatives that both Newt and Mitt Romney agree in their support for individual healthcare mandates (though Gingrich’s position seems to change daily, also similar to Romney’s). In fact, this position reflects both men’s technocratic and supposedly “business” style approach to government—the micro-managerial nature of which is the very antithesis of constitutional, limited government conservatism.
One can only assume that in the wake of the Ryan controversy, Gingrich is banking on his recent comments that Barack Obama is our biggest “food stamp president” to shield him from some of the current criticism from conservatives. Gingrich has every reason to believe that yet another incident of his characteristic partisan demagoguing will work, as it certainly has for Newt’s entire political career.
Lucky for Gingrich, perception is still reality, and amazingly the perception still remains that Newt is a conservative. Perhaps this most recent episode of blatant evidence to the contrary might finally awaken some conservatives from this chronic and troublesome delusion.