Friday, May 20, 2011

Ian M. MacIsaac: Oh, how the mighty have fallen: The Decline and fall of Newt Gingrich, former conservative

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a three-part series surveying current and potential Republican presidential candidates. The next piece will concern Tim Pawlenty.

  Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour, and (most likely) Sarah Palin are all out of the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. For a field that has looked weak all along, having so many absolutely huge Republican Party names AWOL from the stage even before June is seriously bad news. It has left the party with three major possible candidates: Mitt Romney, who most Americans rejected last time; Tim Pawlenty, who most Americans have never even heard of; and Newt Gingrich, who most Americans are simply tired of hearing of.

  Newt has long flirted with a presidential candidacy but this time he's finally thrown his hat into the ring. Gingrich, a former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999, has long prided himself on being both a steadfast conservative as well as an "ideas man."

  But these two self-proclaimed traits of his came into apparent conflict during his appearance last Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, the opening of the former Speaker's news media onslaught which always signals the beginning of a presidential run. During that appearance Gingrich quickly shaved away--with hastily announced and misstated policy judgments and proposals he is still apologizing on television for as I write this days later--much of the appeal that made him a strong contender for the nomination, especially over comparative neophytes and pretty boys like Romney and Pawlenty.

  Out, out the window went the big conservative donors who make their billions (billions, not millions) on health care; out, out the window go the conservative voters who don't understand that their health care company's interests are not their own (nor are their insurance company's or the oil company that owns their local gas station or the food conglomerate that stocks their local supermarket).

  The former Speaker allowed the overcomplexity of his "ideas"--and well-placed and frank questions by host Gregory--to get ahead of the veteran speechifyer's ability to make the carefully crafted political statements required of presidential candidates. In an appearance on one (albeit important and influential) Sunday morning television show, a respected veteran American politician completely demolished his chances of winning the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

  Gingrich flubbed multiple times over the course of the interview, but the moment everyone has been talking about--and the quote that will live in infamy--came when the former Speaker criticized the budget plan of House Budget Committee Chairman and Tea Party darling Paul Ryan, whose plan to slash the deficit includes massive cuts to Medicare while maintaining huge cash subsidies for oil companies, some of which made their largest quarter profits in history this year.

  "I don't believe that right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering," he said about the House Republican plan, before going on to defend the individual mandate for health care included in the 2010 Affordable Care Act--the aspect of the bill most reviled by the right, particularly the Tea Party. "I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left," Gingrich continued off the cliff," "is a very good way for a free society to operate." He went on to call the Ryan plan "too big a jump" and described it as a "radical change."

  Now, Republicans love to use those phrases and phrases like them in abundance--but only  toward Democrats. Even Democrats will use phrasing like "right-wing social engineering and left-wing social engineering," but only when criticizing other Democrats and left-wingers! Never in the post-Nixon era has such a serious Republican presidential candidate taken down other Republicans or conservatives with such fierce language.

  To apply a phrase like "social engineering"--ironically made a politically loaded term over the past number of decades by conservatives themselves--in a condemnatory tone to a fellow Republican's budget plan is simply suicidal if you're trying to become the presidential nominee of a party as well-known for getting in lock-step behind its leaders as communists are.


  In the wake of Gingrich's criticism of Ryan's budget plan--and thus his oblivious, unthinking crack in the wall of steadfast, absolute conservative opposition Ryan and congressional Republicans have been frantically building over the past number of weeks--the right-wing hivemind came out in full force. Republican South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called Gingrich's comments "absolutely unfortunate"; one-man conservative think tank and gambling addict William J. Bennett said Gingrich was "shooting at him [Ryan] from behind, saying this is just right-wing Obamaism." The reliably free market-minded Wall Street Journal editorial page called Gingrich's recent policy statements both "odd" and "timid."

  Gingrich, as a fundamentally 1980s-1990s style conservative, is unfit in the first place for a Tea Party-influenced Republican primary. He is by far the most veteran political figure on the 2012 Republican scene, having served in office for over thirty years (but having last held office over thirteen years ago). Early in the speculative days of the Republican race he looked to come in with the appeal of someone who understood the issues at hand deeply and held well-formed opinions about them in a way a Michele Bachmann or a Tim Pawlenty could not grapple with. (Indeed, Gingrich has long built his political persona around a knowledgeable image: he has a Ph.D. in History from Tulane University and taught before winning a congressional seat in Georgia in 1979.)

  But this could not save him once Gregory maneuvered him into voicing his support for an individual mandate and using phrases like "right-wing social engineering." The really sad part about the whole thing is that acceptance of an individual mandate for health insurance was politically tenable for Republicans in 1994, when Newt led the "Contract for America" gang of Republicans over the top to retake the House. The sands have simply shifted underneath him, thanks to forces like the Tea Party. Major donors are indeed ditching him. What a quick death sentence for such a long-respected and long-influential Washington figure.

  Beyond Newt Gingrich and beyond the 2012 presidential campaign, it says something massive that, despite his policy proposals having shifted not an inch on most subjects--including health care--in twenty years, Gingrich is now substantially further to the left of Republican orthodoxy that he was in 1994, when he was considered a hardline conservative with the best of them. There has been a tidal shift in the current of mainstream conservative politics in the U.S., and it seems telling that such a bedrock Republican as Newt Gingrich could so easily become its victim. But that is the subject of another article.

  Jesus, Republicans, we've got a full eighteen months before next year's presidential election. At this rate I don't know how the Republicans are going to be able to manage to get a nominee at all!

  About the author: Ian MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and former co-editor of the school newspaper, the AUMnibus.

Copyright © Capital City Free Press

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