Before Newt Gingrich stepped off the set of NBC’s “Meet the Press” this weekend, his fellow Republicans were already attacking him for comments his critics claim were attacks on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) "Path to Prosperity." Over the next 48 hours, Tea Party activists, supporters of other candidates and prominent columnists dismissed Gingrich as having ended his campaign before it began, thanks to an act they paint as both inconsistent with his past support for Ryan, and unconscionable catering to the left. Columnist Charles Krauthammer pronounced in definitive terms: “He’s done.”
It’s a shame to see so many people stumble over each other to reveal themselves as unserious observers of politics. All the more since what Gingrich actually had to say was exactly the kind of message many on the right desperately need to hear at this juncture.
The crux of the attack on Gingrich came in response to a question which was not directly about Ryan’s plan. Instead, based on the news last week that Medicare’s trust fund will now be insolvent by 2024 (five years earlier than last year’s calculation), host David Gregory asked whether “Republicans ought to buck the public opposition and really move forward to completely change Medicare."
“I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering,” Gingrich answered. “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.”
Gingrich went on to describe his support for a plan where “people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options, not one where you suddenly impose” a policy solution on people. This was a key element of a proposal advanced last year by Bill Clinton’s former budget director, Alice Rivlin, and former Republican Senator Pete Domenici (N.M.). It’s the same policy position taken by former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Gingrich rival for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Indeed, it’s a policy solution that Ryan himself has said he would be open to in the past, calling it a “fine idea worth considering.”
Yet such facts are too inconvenient for the alliance of critics and opponents who turned Gingrich’s remarks into a radioactive rejection of Ryan’s entire plan. In so forcefully rallying to defend their fresh young idea man in Ryan, and blasting foolishly at the warning of the older, battle-tested idea man in Gingrich, that ideas must not be imposed, but first sold to the public, these individuals may unintentionally set themselves on a path to become the real life imitation of Walker Percy’s Knothead Party.
On Tuesday, Gingrich reiterated to me that he still would’ve voted for Ryan’s plan as a “first step” along these lines—and that he favors Ryan’s premium support system—yet he considers an essential alteration of the plan to be “giving seniors the right to choose.”
“Part of what I am concerned about is compelling people to go through a radical change that has not yet been tested,” Gingrich said. He points out another advantage to starting with a voluntary plan, not just as a matter of principle but as a matter of practical operational experience. Under Gingrich’s plan, seniors would get a certain amount of money to make a determination for themselves which path to take.
“As conservatives who believe in the market, we should be confident in offering a sufficiently better product that will cause people to migrate out of the government fee-for-service program which is less desirable and less effective in a way that doesn’t require coercion,” Gingrich said.
Making the case that controversial ideas need to be first sold to the public, and that they need to set aside compulsory social engineering in favor of consumer choice, is not something that should be rejected as anathema to conservative principle or end anyone’s presidential campaign. This is especially important considering that the last time Republicans took the White House, they embarked on a series of projects which, under the banner of compassionate conservatism, were unquestionably acts of top-down right wing social engineering.
Consider just one fact for a moment: the largest statistical reason for the growth in the percentage of Americans who pay no taxes—a trend many conservatives today decry across the airwaves—is the increase in the child tax credit under Republican President George W. Bush.
The initial creation of the $400 credit in 1998, enacted under Gingrich himself when he served as U.S. House Speaker, was intended as a small way of lightening the tax load on working families. Yet this accelerated dramatically under Bush’s presidency—he more than doubled the credit thanks to the prodding of social conservative groups--so fewer and fewer households ended up paying taxes. According to the non-partisan Tax Foundation, in the period from 2000 to 2004 alone, this expanded child credit accounted for increasing total nonpayers by 10.5 million, a 32-percent jump. In 1997, under 20% of households had no liability—today, it’s 47%. The per-child tax credit is the primary reason for that, but few Republicans are willing to admit that the high number of nonpayers today is in large part due to their use of the tax code to further their view of society.
Gingrich’s warning this week is clearly borne in part out of the experience he gained in the 1990s, when he saw so many unexpected outcomes—both in politics and policy—as a result of what were thought of as pro-reform policies favored by the right’s base. Tea Partiers and other new elements involved in politics today can dismiss this wisdom if they wish, but assuming top-down imposition of a new system will not lead to unintended consequences, does not need to be sold to the American people, and can set aside consumer choice is a dangerous path, one more in keeping with flights of fancy than serious policymaking. As Raymond Chandler once said, “This is what is vulgarly known as having God sit in your lap.”
In the 1990s, Gingrich frequently found ways to win an argument while losing the audience. Today, as he advises his allies on the right to remember to win both, too many critics seem bound and determined not to learn from past mistakes, even if Gingrich has. The future of entitlement reform may well depend on if they are willing to reconsider.
Benjamin Domenech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Health Care News. He served on President Bill Clinton’s 1998 White House summit on Social Security and retirement savings.