Saturday, May 21, 2011

Newt’s figment II: Walk it back

It was inevitable. When you’re in the public eye for as long as Newt Gingrich, eventually you’re going to say something fully truthful, in a moment of refreshing but uncharacteristic candor make some utterance that purely, cleanly distills what you mean and what you believe into language anyone can understand, and with which a majority of the American people agree.

That happened to Gingrich on Sunday, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” in a series of comments during an interview with NBC’s David Gregory. Gingrich, the newly minted and tarnished Republican candidate for president, was responding to a question from Gregory about the value of reforming Medicare according to the plan devised and tirelessly promoted by Rep. Paul Ryan — a plan that has met with devastatingly unfavorable reaction among the Republican constituents who use Medicare the most.

GREGORY: What about entitlements? The Medicare trust fund, in stories that have come out over the weekend, is now going to be depleted by 2024, five years earlier than predicted. Do you think that Republicans ought to buck the public opposition and really move forward to completely change Medicare, turn it into a voucher program where you give seniors —


GREGORY: — some premium support and, so that they can go out and buy private insurance?

GINGRICH: I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate.

Those last two sentences reflected a sharp and non-ideological clarity of thinking that, coming from one of the main architects of the prevailing style of bare-knuckles, take-no-prisoners Republicanism, was flat-out breathtaking. It was a model of philosophical even-handedness; it was the kind of balanced, considered response you could imagine coming from ... President Obama.

In a conference call with reporters, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York admitted he and Gingrich had deep and old differences between them. But “I couldn’t agree more with what he said Sunday about the House Republicans’ plan to end Medicare. He is the Republican canary in a coal mine.”

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s transpired over the following five-six days is a lesson in how relentlessly unforgiving the modern Republican mindset has become, how hewing to the party line is the foundational mission of the GOP, regardless of the consequences to that party or the nation it purports to represent.

It was a tag-team beatdown. Newt got hammered almost immediately by the Republican leadership and thought leaders, who effectively told him he’d better find his place in the hymnal again, and fast. House Majority Leader Eric Kantor basically told Newt as much. Talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh was thoroughly flummoxed.

The National Review Online thundered: “Newt Gingrich Makes Mitt Romney Look Good.” The Wall Street Journal proclaimed Gingrich “Obama’s Running Mate.” Conservative columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer said flat-out Gingrich 2012 was toast.

◊ ◊ ◊

What happened next, of course, is about what you’d expect. The Gingrich campaign went into full damage control. Mission: Walk it back. Blame Gregory. Blame the media in general. Blame the janitor working the late shift at The Washington Post.

Gingrich blamed the Medicare question Gregory asked him, instead of addressing the answer yielded by the question. “It’s a hypothetical baloney question that had no hope of happening,” he said. “The Republicans don’t control the Senate. They don’t have the White House. They can’t do what Obama did. And I should just dismiss it. So, that was a mistake.”

On Tuesday, Gingrich said on a conference call that he “didn’t go in [to the interview] quite hostile enough, because it didn’t occur to me going in that you’d have a series of setups.” He’s made 34 previous appearances on “Meet the Press,” The Huffington Post reported.

Then on Friday he arrived in Council Bluffs, Iowa, soldiering on despite the onslaught of criticism. “No one who has declared my candidacy over has been to Iowa,” said Gingrich, who attracted a crowd of more than 120 at Tish's Restaurant, the Omaha World-Herald reported. 

◊ ◊ ◊

From this point on, count on Gingrich to look for ways to obscure or moderate his real and unalloyed position on Medicare, to look for some soft navigable middle between his original renunciation of the Ryan plan and his sudden and almost reflexive obedience to the party for which that plan is all but gospel.

And that Gestapo-spank pivot, that breakneck about-face is exactly the problem. What could have been a defining moment for Newt Gingrich, an opportunity to lift himself out of the morass of carbon-copy Republican intolerance, the lockstep intransigence that defines the GOP, was thoroughly wasted.

Newt had a chance to stand for something; he had the chance to stand for nothing more complicated or difficult than what he apparently truly believed. Instead, the minute somebody in his party gave him the side-eye, he folded like a cheap tent and ran begging for forgiveness. He could have been somebody. Now? He’s about to be just another hack.

Since this slow-motion implosion started, there’s been loose talk, little or none of it to be taken seriously, about rebooting the official start of the campaign. The Gingrich offensive just under way in Iowa may be just that. That may be the reason for putting Gingrich on CBS’s “Face the Nation” to field questions from Bob Schieffer, this Sunday (against Rep. Paul Ryan, on “Meet the Press”). But still. The relaunch of a presidential campaign is never a good sign. Sure as hell not ten days after it starts.

◊ ◊ ◊

Trouble is, it may not even matter. The damage among Iowa’s rank and file may already be done. Russell Fuhrman made that clear on Monday. Fuhrman, by all indications a garden-variety Iowa Republican and the very kind of person Gingrich came to Iowa to meet, met Newt in a hotel lobby, shook his hand and never let go of it.

Lambasting Gingrich for turning on the Ryan Medicare plan, Fuhrman made a searing request that no amount of spin will make disappear.

"You're an embarrassment to our party,” Fuhrman said. “Why don't you get out before you make a bigger fool of yourself?"

If that question came from anyone of the progressive persuasion of American politics, Newt Gingrich could afford to dismiss it and the person who asked it as an enemy of the campaign, the Republican Party and, no doubt, the entire United States of America. But since the question came from a fellow Rock-Ribbed Republican in the first state a candidate needs to be credible — never mind electable — Newt Gingrich has to answer it. First of all, to nobody but himself.

Image credits: Gingrich top: Screengrab from Fox News. Newt 2012 logo: Gingrich bottom: Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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