Candidate Gingrich

I wrote off Newt Gingrich early on in the present Republican primary campaign.  As he’s done with so many professional pundits, he’s showing me up (how must they feel to be in my company…).

He’s made a lot of mistakes, and he carries a lot of baggage.  It’s suggested that his flip-flopping skills rival the best of others.

But he also has an aspect that few politicians have: an openness about his positions, a willingness to acknowledge his mistakes rather than to weasel-word those positions.  A willingness to address directly the premise that his positions have evolved.

A few examples will illustrate.  He did a spot with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi supporting government responses to global warming; now he freely—and repeatedly, since television talking heads can’t get enough of it—admits to the error: “that is probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years. It is inexplicable.”  He endorsed a liberal Republican congressional candidate, Dede Scozzafava, who wound up supporting taxpayer funding of elective abortions.  He’s since acknowledged his foolishness in this endorsement.

On the beef about his flip-flopping, the argument assumes that men cannot change, that once they’ve taken a position, it’s been carved in adamantine, never to be reconsidered.  This is little more than hubris on the part of those who would exclaim this about a man.  Gingrich, for instance, once supported an individual mandate for health care programs.  What he said, later, to explain that “support,” was this: “I agree that all of us have a responsibility to help pay for health care.  I’ve said consistently, where there’s some requirement you either have health insurance or you post a bond or in some way you indicate you’re going to be held accountable.”  One can argue that this evolution of a position is a flip, but there’s clearly been no change back to the original—no flop to reverse the flip.  And the argument ignores the fact that Gingrich’s “responsibility” is a far cry from the version of individual mandate that is the heart and soul of Obamacare: buy the government-approved program or pay a fine.  Every year, pay the fine or buy the government-approved program.  There is no option to otherwise demonstrate that an individual has his health care costs covered in some way satisfactory to him and costlessly to his neighbors.

Then there’s his consulting work with a GSE, for which he was paid a ton of money.  The beef here is as much about the amount he was paid as it was for the advice he actually provided.  Some of us think, though, that we should be paid for our labors at the rate we can get an employer, or a client to pay us.  It’s only a Progressive meme that it’s somehow wrong to aspire to be a part of the 1%.

As to the work itself, part of that included his touting of Freddie Mac as an exceptionally viable business model.  Frankly, I agree with him.  Any time I can start up and run a business where I can con someone else into picking up a significant fraction of my costs, I’ll go for it.  Freddie Mac succeeded in that, and Gingrich acknowledged it.

There’s also the beef that “He used the influence he had earned while he was in the political field….”  I’m not convinced that’s, of necessity, wrong.  Certainly such influence can be used abusively.  Certainly there are advantages to being a true outsider, and so devoid of such influence in one’s tool kit.  But influence strongly affects how things work, too, at all levels of government, and in the board room and the cubicle farms.  Having political influence and the skills to use it isn’t all bad.

To be sure, the heaviest baggage he carries is the way he’s comported himself in his private life: working on his third marriage while having cheated on his previous two wives.  However, as Bob Vander Plaats, President and CEO of The Family Leader, puts it, “He did not have a road to Des Moines conversion. He’s had five, six, seven years where he’s been repentant, he’s been humble, he’s been transparent….”  Certainly, once integrity has been broken, we can never be sure again.  All we can do is observe the man’s behavior since, and if that behavior warrants, make a leap of faith in trust.  This is as true with Newt Gingrich as it is with any man.

In short, Gingrich has shown himself to be an imperfect man who makes mistakes.  It might seem that he’s made a lot of them—too many, in fact—but we have to consider other factors, as well: whether he’s really made all that many more mistakes than his rivals or than politicians generally; or whether his mistakes are more visible, both because of his personal baggage and because his rivals, and politicians generally, work hard to conceal their mistakes, or explain them away with current rationale so they don’t seem like mistakes anymore.

On the other hand, Gingrich has strong attractions.  He’s not averse to pushing back against journalists who ask foolish questions, and calling them out over their foolishness.  (That’s a particularly favorable characteristic to me.)  We may disagree with him on the legitimacy of a particular question, but it’s hard to miss the fact that he’s willing to try to keep a conversation on track.  He’s also alone among the present Republican candidates who actively refuses to criticize his rivals during the debates, preferring (correctly) to argue why he’s the best candidate to beat the incumbent, rather than why the other candidates are dolts.

But more substantively, he’s not afraid to take a position because he believes it, even if it’s politically risky.   He has, for instance, proposed immigration reform that would allow illegal aliens who’ve been here for 25 years and are otherwise upstanding members of their community to stay—just not as citizens or with a right to vote.  This has drawn “illegal immigrant magnet” criticism from many conservatives.

He’s actively pushed for oil drilling off the South Carolina shore, saying this will produce 8,800 jobs and $1.3 billion for the South Carolina economy.  This has drawn the ire of environmentalists and NIMBYers alike,

He’s proposed, however clumsily in the minds of the politically correct, paying local students to take care of their school.  The kids would actually do work, they would have cash that they’ve earned, they would develop a measure of pride in their school, they’d “begin the process of rising.” (One might pay the students out of the funds saved by reducing the janitorial staff.  One might let the VoTech shops (remember those?) do some of the plumbing and carpentry maintenance.) This is a technique that works very well in Japan; although those students aren’t paid for the work—it’s viewed as part of their duty.

He’s proposed a far more active and direct strategy for dealing with Iran than anything put forward by President Obama.

He’s proposed privatizing much of Social Security, but maintaining a Federally funded floor under retirement payouts.  He’s proposed a dual track of maintaining the current Social Security system for those who don’t want the privatization.  He anticipates the current system will wither and disappear as more and more opt into the private system.

All of these ideas pose political risks, if only by their existence as targets for rivals.  But his ideas are worth articulating openly so they can be discussed openly, as few other candidates are willing to do during their campaigns.  As Gingrich said about Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 plan, at least he’s gotten serious conversation going on the matters.

Newt Gingrich is a flawed man, but who among his rivals, who among the Progressives, who among any of us, is not?  Gingrich also is a man who’s entirely willing to say what must be said, regardless of the risks to him.  That counts for something, too.

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