Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 14, 2011
POLITICS: Taking Newt Gingrich's Ideas Seriously
Ideas don't run for president; people do. That's as true today as it was four years ago. So, it is understandable that much of the press and blog coverage of the 2012 GOP primary race has focused on the personalities, experience and record of the candidates rather than their ideas. In fact, until you know the candidates by their actions, you cannot meaningfully judge what their words will mean in practice. Mitt Romney is the prime example of this, having so inconsistent a record that it's impossible to take seriously the idea that he's guided by any sort of coherent political philosophy.
But as it happens, we do have three candidates in this race who stand for a distinctive philosophical approach to domestic policy. One of those, Ron Paul, espouses a radical constitutionalism that exists on the periphery of the conservative movement. Rick Perry, while his issue stances are more conventionally (but not always uniformly) conservative, can best be understood through the lens of his guiding principle as a Texas nationalist - a belief that a significant amount of the powers now wielded by the federal government should be returned to the states. And then there's Newt Gingrich. Newt generates so many new ideas - he develops more firmly-held political convictions before breakfast each morning than Romney's had his entire life - that it's tempting to view them as essentially random. But there is a method to the madness. Setting aside for a moment Gingrich's personal attributes, let's look at his ideas, with particular attention to two recent interviews he did - one with Ben Domenech, Brad Jackson and Francis Cianfrocca at Coffee and Markets, the other with Glenn Beck. Both provide a keen window into how Newt views domestic policy issues. In the interests of length, I'll pass over one of the three pillars of Newt's worldview (his futurism and faith in new technologies), which has been written about extensively, and focus on two others: his gradualism and his revival of what I call "Reform Conservatism."
I. The Gradualist
Newt's penchant for apocalyptic rhetoric, revolutionary slogans and promises to fundamentally rethink things tends to get him branded as an agent of bracing changes; even Jonah Goldberg frames the contest between Newt and Romney as a question of whether Republican voters are in the mood for radical overturning of the status quo. The DNC has echoed this theme by calling Newt "the original Tea Partier," suggesting - as it did in the 1990s - that Newt wanted to do too much, too fast in ways voters couldn't stomach.
But that's Newt's reputation and rhetorical style; it's not how he actually looks at domestic legislation. He is, in many ways, a gradualist, a temperamental conservative - not one who resists change for the sake of resisting change, of course (precisely the opposite, as I'll discuss below) but rather an ardent believer in the idea that policy proposals need to be modest and incremental enough to gain a large share of public support. In this regard, a Gingrich presidency would mark a departure from Karl Rove's "50 + 1" approach as well as from the bitterly divisive, passed-over-voter-objections approach to Obamacare. Going back to the Contract with America, Newt has long preached the value of "60% issues" or even more dramatically "80/20 issues," on which a politician can target his proposals to what a large majority of the public actually wants (thus, in the 1990s, welfare reform, congressional reforms, balanced budgets and a capital gains tax cut). In 2009, we had Newt's Platform of the American People, complete with Newt's view of the polling on each issue:
1. English should be the official language of government. (87 to 11)
Ditto Newt's philosophy of persuading the public, which dovetails with his "happy warrior" approach in this campaign:
1. Select positive messages.
Applying that approach to the great entitlement crises of the day, Newt has focused on the need to overhaul Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but do so in a way that moves slowly enough to keep a nervous public on board. From the Beck interview, Newt explained why he supported the Medicare prescription drug bill (the first Newt quote is an earlier one Beck played; I've truncated these for space):
GLENN: ...You said if you are a fiscal conservative who cares about balancing the federal budget, there may be no more important bill to vote on in your career than in support of this bill. This was what you said about a new you entitlement, Medicare prescription drug program.GINGRICH: Which also included Medicare Advantage and also included the right to have a high deductible medical savings account, which is the first step towards moving control over your health dollars back to you. And I think is a very important distinguishing point. On the government, my position is very straightforward. If you're going to have Medicare, which was created in 1965, and was created at a time when practically drugs didn't matter. There weren't very many breakthroughs at that point....
Beck then asked about Paul Ryan's Medicare plan, and Newt responded by focusing on the political feasibility of doing it all at once:
GINGRICH: I think that that is too big a jump. I think what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options, not one where you suddenly impose upon. I don't want -- I'm against ObamaCare which is imposing radical change and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.
This is your basic boil-the-frog theory: introduce alternatives, let people choose, and - to use the notorious phrase Newt used in the 90s regarding Medicare - let the old system wither on the vine. (It's also Perry's approach to tax reform). And the gradualism is one of the lessons Newt undoubtedly learned, or learned better, from Bill Clinton. Newt closed by bringing this back to the issue of public trust:
GINGRICH: ...I also think you can reshape Medicare but I think you have to do it in a way that people find it desirable and that people think -- and that people trust you. I helped reform Medicare in 1996 in a way that saved $200 billion and we had no major opposition to it. And people concluded that we had thought it through and we were doing the right thing and they were comfortable with it.
In the Coffee and Markets interview, Newt criticized the tendency of some conservatives to want messy confrontations:
...they come back and say well, Gingrich still doesn't cut Social Security. Well, if I just fix it, maybe you don't need to. There's a book, this goes back to the '60s, there's a book called Change, Problem Perception, Problem Resolution by a group of anti-Freudian psychologists who said, instead of having you go through therapy what if we just fix your problems? Would that be okay, or would you miss not having gone through therapy?
Newt took a similar approach to Medicare:
If what [Romney] is suggesting is a mandatory premium support plan, including people currently on Medicare, he is talking about a politically impossible proposal. Which of course he can't tell you about in detail because if he told you about it in detail AARP, and 60 Plus and others would end his campaign in about three days.
In short, a critical component of understanding Newt's approach is that for all his pie-in-the-sky futurism, he starts with the most conservative idea of all: taking the world as it already exists as the starting point, and needing to propose changes that can rest on a foundation of durable public support. Whether or not you agree with his judgments of what's feasible, that's a sound and canny basis for shaping legislative proposals.
II. The Reform Conservative
The second aspect of Newt's approach, and the one that explains a good number of his deviations from conservative orthodoxy, goes back to one of the great debates of the 1988-2008 period: what I referred to in 2004 as "Reform Conservatism," essentially the Jack Kemp school of thought. Newt Gingrich is nothing if not a Jack Kemp man.
There are four basic points on the political spectrum. At one end you have the progressives/liberals, who think that the government should run all sorts of things - education, healthcare, transportation, business and housing finance, etc. - and trust government employees to make the important decisions. The money goes through Washington, and the decisions are made by public employees. At the other end, you have conservatives who want government out of the picture as much as possible, and want private individuals, businesses and markets to make decisions. The money and the power both remain outside the government's control.
In the middle - aside from just status-quo moderates - you have two other groups. One is the neoliberals, who basically recognize that government isn't good at making these kinds of decisions, but tend to propose solutions (e.g., in the education world, things like merit pay and testing for teachers) that seek to hold government decisionmakers more accountable for results. The other is the group - whether you call them neoconservatives or Reform Conservatives or what have you - that essentially accepts the existing role of government in collecting taxpayer money for these various purposes, but wants to return the power over that money's disposition as much as possible to private individuals: school choice, private Social Security and Health Savings Accounts, etc., all containing moneys that orthodox conservatives would suggest not taxing or restricting in the first place.
As I noted in 2004, some of the reasoning behind these kinds of programs is tactical, dovetailing with Newt's preference for taking current reality as a starting point. And Newt would bring about real reductions in public employment with his "lean six sigma" plan to drastically cut civil service employment, a reduction in government's functioning that is one reason why - as he indicated in the Coffee and Markets interview - he doesn't see it as all that crucial that he or his running mate have executive experience:
The lesson of Harry Truman is that presidents are about leadership not management. Presidents hire managers. Lincoln had managed a two lawyer office with no clerks. That was the sum total of his management experience before he got to be President.
But it's clear that Newt actually believes in a role for government as tax collector for various domestic-policy purposes; he just doesn't trust the government to actually run anything. The Beck interview again:
What I'm against is the government trying to implement things because bureaucracy's such a bad implementer, and I'm against government trying to pick winners and losers....
You will not find this Hamiltonian view at any Tea Party rally you might attend. Newt's Reform Conservatism is on solid ground when it comes to tactics, and undoubtedly it involves fewer micro-level decisions about picking winners in the economy than liberalism does (with its attendant inevitable Solyndra-style abuses and corruptions) but at heart it still presents the basic problem that somewhere, someone has to decide what the "right" things are to subsidize so as to "creat[e] a better future." And it also presents tension with his desire to make real and meaningful cuts in taxes. And at bottom, it opens Newt to many of the same risks and criticisms that plagued George W. Bush's "Compassionate Conservatism."
In summary, Newt Gingrich's approach can't be fully understood with an easy caricature of big or small government, status quo or radical change. What Newt stands for, and intends to carry out if elected, is a series of major changes in how government operates - done step by gradual step, introducing more popular choice and control and reducing public employment, rather than focusing on making dramatic and immediate cuts to public outlays or public functions. Newt's gradualism is an attitude that's inseparable from both his training as a historian and his obsession with the future: Newt sees change as a constant and a continuum, in which the future is reshaped by the way in which incentives are altered and power put in the hands of people who will not willingly cede it back.
It is open to fair debate whether, in designing such an agenda, Newt is more realistic and more savvy in reading what is politically possible than more Tea Party oriented Republicans, or is passing up a unique historic opportunity to get the public behind razing big chunks of Washington at once. But either way, there is a distinctive philosophy at work that deserves as much attention in understanding his platform as Newt's personality, character and experience.