One of the interesting sidebars of last night’s debate was the fiery exchange between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich over the latter’s “grandiose” ideas and unstable leadership style. During the course of this rhetorical dustup during which Gingrich took Santorum’s bait and took credit for the Reagan presidency, the defeat of the Soviet Union and the 1994 Republican Congressional victory. While the first two claims are the stuff of self-satire, Gingrich is surely entitled to puff his chest at the memory of his role in the GOP’s taking back the House for the first time in 40 years.

But as Santorum aptly noted, the willingness of some GOP backbenchers — a group that the former Pennsylvania senator was quick to point out included himself — to turn the House Bank scandal into a cause célèbre had as much to do with turning the tide in the years leading up 1994 as any of Gingrich’s plans. Santorum chided Gingrich for knowing about the problem but choosing not to make a stink about it. But, as Politico reports today, there was more to it than just Gingrich’s faulty judgment about whether the scandal had legs.

Alexander Burns of Politico recals that in 1992 the New York Times reported about Gingrich’s involvement in the banking scandal. Apparently, Gingrich was kiting checks along with the worst Democratic scofflaws. His 22 overdrafts including a $9,463 check to the IRS was a major issue in his re-election campaign that year and nearly cost him his seat which the then House Republican Minority held by a razor-thin margin of 982 votes that fall.

Santorum was wrong to imply that the Georgian didn’t get involved in exposing the House Bank scandal because he lacked the moxie to mix up with the Democratic poobahs. In fact, as Gingrich pointed out, he had already played the lead role in taking down former House Speaker Jim Wright. The real reason for Gingrich’s silence was far worse: conflict of interest.

Gingrich said nothing about the bank while Santorum stuck his neck out because he was as guilty as any of the Democrats who were caught bouncing checks at the bank at the taxpayers’ expense.

That information leaves us wondering why, if Santorum was going to bring up the scandal in the course of an attack on Gingrich, he pulled his punch. Wouldn’t it have been far more devastating to rightly accuse Gingrich of complicity in the scandal instead of wrongly accusing him of cowardice?

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