Is Newt Gingrich really the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney? That’s what many in the punditocracy have proclaimed as the former speaker of the House is now surging in the polls. Yet a look at his record reveals that Newt is hardly the “anti-Mitt.” He’s Mitt Romney with more baggage.
As he moved to the forefront of the GOP presidential primaries, Gingrich quickly came under fire for some $1.6 million he was reportedly paid as a consultant for controversial mortgage giant Freddie Mac between 1999 and early 2008. Federally backed Freddie Mac and its larger sister institution, Fannie Mae, are deeply unpopular among Republicans who blame them for a major role in triggering the housing bubble.
Every Gingrich profile proclaims that he’s a dazzling “ideas man,” a “one-man think-tank.” It seems that if you clamor long enough about “big ideas,” people become convinced you actually have them. But most of Gingrich’s policy ideas over the past decade have been tepidly conventional and consistent with the big government, beltway consensus.
This summer Gingrich dismissed Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan as “right-wing social engineering.” That gaffe was a window into Gingrich’s irresponsible approach toward entitlements. In 2003, Gingrich stumped hard for President George W. Bush’s prescription-drug bill, which has added some $17 trillion to Medicare’s unfunded liabilities. And in his 2008 book, “Real Change,” he endorsed an individual mandate for health insurance.
On foreign affairs, Gingrich’s ideas are a little less conventional, but his apocalyptic saber-rattling hardly instills confidence. In 2009, he proposed zapping a North Korean missile site with laser weapons.
There’s no denying that Newt is smart, but there’s a zany, Cliff Clavin aspect to his intellect. At times, Gingrich, who’s written more than 150 book reviews on Amazon.com, sounds like a guy who read way too much during a long prison stretch.
The former speaker’s immense self-regard is evident in one of the exhibits to a 1997 House Ethics Committee report on him. In a handwritten 1992 note to himself, he wrote: “Gingrich — primary mission, Advocate of civilization, definer of civilization, Teacher of the rules of civilization, arouser of those who fan civilization, ... leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces.” Whew!
Newt may be a poor fit for the role of “anti-Romney,” but you can say one thing for him: He knows how to play the Washington game.
Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”