When Newt Gingrich criticized Congressman Paul Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan and repeated his support for individual healthcare mandates this week, many conservatives expressed outrage and shock. Conservatives were right to be outraged. But they shouldn’t have been shocked.
Simply put, Newt Gingrich has never been a conservative.
Perhaps a quick primer in perception versus reality is in order. The reason most presidential candidates are considered frontrunners is because enough people keep saying they are frontrunners. For example, candidates like former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty or Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels are considered frontrunners despite having less name recognition, lesser poll numbers and less fundraising ability than some of the other supposed second or third tier candidates. Still, their perception as such continues to dictate the current reality.
The reason Newt Gingrich is considered a conservative is because enough people have always said he’s a conservative. The former House speaker rose to national prominence in the mid-1990’s championing the GOP’s “Contract with America,” spearheading the “Republican Revolution of ‘94” and earned a reputation for being one of President Bill Clinton’s harshest critics. From that time to today, Gingrich has no doubt remained one of the harshest critics of the Democratic Party.
But simply being partisan does not a conservative make. If so, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney could be considered conservatism personified. In a similar mold, Gingrich has rarely, if ever, been for smaller government. He simply believes Republicans can preside over big government more effectively.
The Ryan plan controversy is simply our latest exposure to Gingrich’s consistent big government Republican brand. There is currently an intra-GOP debate wherein most conservatives recognize Ryan’s plan as being bolder than most, but they also note that it doesn’t go nearly far enough considering that by its own projection we will still be saddled with a $23 trillion national debt in ten years. In this latter sentiment, Sen. Rand Paul and other conservative leaders have noted the relative timidity of Ryan’s plan.
Even so, at precisely the time when part of the GOP is praising Ryan for being bold and another part is worried his plan isn’t bold enough—Gingrich has already dismissed it as too “radical.” This might make conservatives angry, but it is also classic Gingrich.
If a candidate like Ron Paul is often unconventionally Republican precisely because he is willing to examine sacred cows in the name of more substantively limiting government, Gingrich’s unconventional Republican positions come from the exact opposite direction—with Newt typically taking the side of big government. For example, many conservatives were surprised to see Gingrich appearing in commercials with Nancy Pelosi sympathetic to liberal views on climate change. Conservatives shouldn’t have been surprised.