APOLOGIES

05.17.11

Contrite Newt Apologizes to Ryan

How an experienced lawmaker dug himself a hole and kept digging

The question about Newt Gingrich, professional provocateur, was always whether he had the discipline to run for president.

Judging by the not-so-friendly fire he is taking from the right, his initial foray has not been encouraging.

Many conservatives are furious over his appearance on Meet the Press, where the former House speaker got tripped up not over questions about his affair and subsequent marriage to his third wife, but about policy, which is supposed to be his great strength.

Gingrich dissed the Paul Ryan Medicare voucher plan, saying he didn’t like “right-wing social engineering” any better than the left wing kind. Which is a perfectly respectable position to take, except that all but a handful of House Republicans voted for the Ryan bill, so Gingrich is backtracking a bit. (Update: Gingrich called Ryan Tuesday to apologize, and his campaign is admitting to "missteps," nothing more.)

The former Georgia congressman also backed a key part of Mitt Romney’s health care bill—an individual mandate to buy insurance—which, as a video clip showed, he also supported in an appearance with Tim Russert back in 1993. The problem is that a mandate is a cornerstone of Obamacare, which Gingrich says he wants to repeal.

Again, the candidate could take a principled stance and say while he opposes the excesses of the president’s health plan, he feels that, as with car insurance, people who benefit from the system have to take some responsibility. Instead, Gingrich is tying himself in knots trying to explain away his comments.(Here he is on a conference call.)  

How bad is the damage? Columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News:

“This is a big deal. He’s done. He didn’t have a big chance from the beginning but now it’s over. Apart from being contradictory and incoherent as we saw in those two bites you showed where he contradicted himself in the course of one day on the individual mandate – calling the Republican plan, which all but four Republican members of the House have now endorsed and will be running on, calling it radical and right-wing social engineering is deadly.”

And then there is this headline on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. It reads, simply, “Gingrich to House GOP: Drop Dead."

National Review Editor Rich Lowry rolls his eyes at the Gingrich rhetoric:

“That’s Newt being Newt…He can’t help himself. Gingrich prefers extravagant lambasting when a mere distancing would do, and the over-arching theoretical construct to a mundane pander. He is drawn irresistibly to operatic overstatement — sometimes brilliant, always interesting, and occasionally downright absurd,…

“When he was speaker of the House, he alienated his colleagues (some of whom roll their eyes at the mere mention of his name) and dragged himself, his family, and his party through a psychodrama. If he were to replicate that performance in the White House, it’d be a formula for a LBJ- or Nixon-style meltdown.”

When the editor of conservatism’s most important magazine is comparing your emotional state to that of Richard Nixon, I’d say you have a problem.

Rush Limbaugh was a key Gingrich ally back in the 1990s, and when the Republicans took over the House in 1995, El Rushbo was made an honorary member of the freshman class. So how did Limbaugh react?

“I am not going to justify this. I am not going to explain it,” he told listeners.

"The attack on Paul Ryan, the support for an individual mandate in healthcare? Folks, don’t ask me to explain this. There is no explanation! What do you mean, 'If I don't explain it, who will?' There is no explanation for it. First off, it cuts Paul Ryan off at the knees. It supports the Obama administration in the lawsuits that 26 states have filed over the mandate. I guess, what? Back in 1993, Newt supported an individual mandate, everybody should buy insurance. I am as befuddled as anyone else is what I’m telling you.”

So Gingrich clearly has some ’splainin’ to do with conservatives. And the news today isn’t good, with Politico posting this piece about Gingrich owing a huge chunk of change to Tiffany’s: “In 2005 and 2006, the former House speaker turned presidential candidate carried as much as $500,000 in debt to the premier jewelry company, according to financial disclosures filed with the Clerk of the House of Representatives.”

This, after all, is a man who wants to manage the nation’s economy.

With Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump out of the race, the path was clear for Gingrich to grab some positive attention in his first week out of the gate. But by any fair reading, he has stumbled badly.