On NBC’s Meet the Press, host David Gregory asked Newt Gingrich, who last week declared his candidacy for the presidency, about entitlements, Medicare, and the House GOP plan put forward by Representative Paul Ryan to reform them. “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering,” Gingrich responded. “I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate.” He went on to say the Ryan plan is “too big a jump,” and in case he hadn’t been clear enough already, Gingrich added, “I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.” (Gingrich’s answer to our entitlement crisis? A plan called “Stop Paying the Crooks.” You can’t make this stuff up.)
There are several things to notice about what Gingrich said, starting with this: his formulation is intellectually incoherent. In what possible respect is the Ryan plan, which down the road moves Medicare from a defined benefit to a defined contribution program, “right-wing social engineering”? Ryan would inject greater choice and competition into the system. Choice and competition hardly qualify as “social engineering.” If anything, they are the opposite. And as Yuval Levin has shown, the plan is hardly radical.
There are a couple of other elements of Gingrich’s comments that are worth noting. The first is that Gingrich has flip-flopped as dramatically on the Ryan plan (see here and here) almost as badly as he flip-flopped on Libya. Gingrich seems intent on achieving in just a few weeks what it took John Kerry, who actually did vote for the $87 billion before he voted against it, many months to accomplish.
The other thing that stands out is Gingrich’s rhetoric. It would be one thing for Gingrich to say that he disagrees with the Ryan plan; that would, in my judgment, be a wrong but not particularly outrageous. But to use words like radical and social engineering to describe it is irresponsible, even for Gingrich. After all, Democrats—starting with the president—are conducting their own ferocious and dishonest campaign against the Ryan plan. For the former GOP Speaker of the House to use terms that the most partisan progressive would use (and now almost surely will use) to describe the Ryan plan is unsettling. If there’s one public figure in America you might think would resist the impulse to pursue a strategy of “Mediscare,” it would be Gingrich, who was beaten like a drum by Bill Clinton on this issue in the 1990s.
In a withering but in some respects prescient profile on Gingrich in 1984, a person who was once among his closest friends and advisers (before they had a falling out) said, “The important thing you have to understand about Newt Gingrich is that he is amoral. There isn’t any right or wrong, there isn’t any conservative or liberal. There’s only what will work best for Newt Gingrich.”
We’re all familiar with the personal character issues surrounding Newt Gingrich. What we were able to glimpse on Sunday was his public character. Neither are particularly reassuring. And both will prove to be politically damaging.