Jay Newton Small, Time magazine: "But would you have voted for Ryan’s plan?"
Small: "Do you think it would actually save the health care system?"
Gingrich: "No, I think it’s the first step. You need an entirely new set of solutions."
-- Time magazine interview with Gingrich, April 20, 2011
Gingrich: "... There are things you can do to improve Medicare."
NBC’s David Gregory: "But not what Paul Ryan is suggesting, which is completely changing Medicare."
Gingrich: "I, I think that, I think, 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 the -- I don't want to -- I'm against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change."
-- Interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, May 15, 2011
Gingrich: "I made a mistake. And I called Paul Ryan today, who's a very close personal friend and I said that. The fact is that I have supported what Ryan has tried to do on the budget. The fact is that my newsletter strongly praised the budget when he brought it out. And the budget vote is one that I'm happy to say I would have voted for. I will defend and I will be glad to answer any Democrat who attempts to distort what I said. And I made a simple mistake."
-- Interview on Fox News Channel’s On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, May 17, 2011
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., made a splash when he officially entered the 2012 presidential race in mid May. But it wasn’t exactly the splash he was looking for.
In addition to a testy exchange with an Iowa voter that was caught on video, a glitter attack by a gay-rights protester, revelations that he had owed a six-figure amount to the luxury retailer Tiffany’s and a series of articles questioning the accuracy of his facts, Gingrich also took heat from conservatives for an alleged flip-flop on whether he supported the budget plan written by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and passed by the GOP-controlled House.
Ryan’s budget includes aggressive spending cuts that have energized conservatives, and changes to Medicare that have outraged liberals. Support for Ryan’s plan has become something of a litmus test for Republicans, especially those running for the GOP presidential nomination. So Gingrich’s stance on the plan was bound to become an issue.
Gingrich’s views on Ryan’s proposal have indeed varied over time -- and they’ve also been somewhat more nuanced than the popular reaction would indicate.
In a Facebook post on March 17, 2010, Gingrich wrote favorably of Ryan’s previous plan, known as the "Roadmap." The "Roadmap" is broadly similar to the budget resolution passed earlier this year by the House, including in its approach to Medicare.
Gingrich’s post called Ryan’s proposal "a comprehensive, bold solution to America’s serious problem of rapidly rising debt. CBO scores the Roadmap reforms as achieving full solvency for Social Security and Medicare and eliminating all long term federal deficits, balancing the federal budget for the long haul. … I know Congressman Ryan remains committed to improving the quality of life for all Americans, both now and in the future, and this Roadmap represents a comprehensive way to achieve that."
More than a year later, Gingrich told Time magazine reporter Jay Newton Small that he would have voted for Ryan’s latest plan if he’d been serving in the House.
Pressed on whether it would "actually save the health care system," Gingrich responded, "No, I think it’s the first step. You need an entirely new set of solutions."
In other words, Gingrich indicated that the plan was worth voting for but added that it was not a silver bullet.
A few days after that, in comments at the Brookings Institution on April 23, 2011, Gingrich once again praised Ryan’s big-picture thinking but added that "there are details (of the plan) I disagree with." According to an account in the Daily Caller, one of his reservations involved "cutting investment in science and research."
Reductions in science funding envisioned under Ryan’s plan are "essentially like saying I want to save money on your car, we’re not going to change the oil. And for about a year I can get away with it. And then the engine will freeze up, and we’ll have to replace your engine. But if I have a CBO that scores oil but doesn’t score engines, I can annually replace the engine for free, because it won’t count as a budget cost."
This seems to reinforce a view that Gingrich supported the proposal, but not without qualifications.
Then came the Meet the Press interview on May 15, 2011.
Host David Gregory asked Gingrich, "Do you think that Republicans ought to buck the public opposition and really move forward to completely change Medicare, turn it into a voucher program where you give seniors … some premium support and -- so that they can go out and buy private insurance?"
Gingrich responded, "I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate."
After explaining his desire to instead cut waste and abuse, Gingrich insisted that "there are things you can do to improve Medicare."
"But not what Paul Ryan is suggesting, which is completely changing Medicare?" Gregory suggested.
Gingrich said, "I, I think that, I think, 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 the -- I don't want to -- I'm against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change."
While Gingrich didn’t explicitly tell Gregory, "I wouldn’t have voted for the Ryan proposal," his stance seems pretty clear to us -- that he did not favor the Ryan Medicare overhaul. So we think it’s fair to say that, after the Meet the Press interview, Gingrich had at the very least done a half-flip on the question of whether to implement the Ryan proposal.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page the day after the Meet the Press appearance, Gingrich backtracked somewhat. He said he had "probably used too strong language" on the show, though he added, "I have thought about this for a long time and I am very, very worried. … I think it would be politically catastrophic to pass the bill in its current form," at a moment when conservatives have an opportunity "to break the left for the first time since 1932."
So Gingrich indicated to the Wall Street Journal that he’d overstated his view, but still thought that it would be "politically catastrophic to pass the bill in its current form."
Yet there was more to come.
As a wave of criticism built, mostly from conservatives outraged at his failure to fully back Ryan’s proposal, Gingrich went on Fox News Channel’s On the Record with Greta Van Susteren on May 17, 2011, to extend and clarify his remarks.
"I made a mistake," Gingrich said. "And I called Paul Ryan today, who's a very close personal friend and I said that. The fact is that I have supported what Ryan has tried to do on the budget. The fact is that my newsletter strongly praised the budget when he brought it out. And the budget vote is one that I'm happy to say I would have voted for. I will defend and I will be glad to answer any Democrat who attempts to distort what I said. And I made a simple mistake. ...
"So, let me say on the record: Any ad which quotes what I said Sunday is a falsehood and because I have said publicly, those words were inaccurate and unfortunate. And I'm prepared to stand up -- when I make a mistake, and I'm going to on occasion, I want to stand up and share with the American people, that was a mistake, because that way, we can have an honest conversation."
In other words, Gingrich used the appearance with Van Susteren to back away from any suggestion that he would have voted against the Ryan plan.
As we indicated, a close reading of the Meet the Press transcript shows that Gingrich never precisely said that he would have voted against the Ryan plan. But he certainly made clear that he thought a key provision of the plan -- the changes to Medicare -- were "too big a jump" for him to support. And by saying on Van Susteren’s show that he "made a mistake" in his Meet the Press comments -- a big enough mistake that he felt a need to call Ryan and smooth things over -- it seems like a tacit admission of a flip-flop.
We do think that, taken as a whole, there has been more nuance to Gingrich’s stance than some of the coverage has indicated. But his philosophical travels -- from the full-throated Facebook endorsement in 2010, to qualified endorsements in the Time interview and at the Brookings conference, to the downbeat assessment on Meet the Press, to the hasty re-endorsement on Van Susteren’s show -- indicate that Gingrich’s support for the Ryan proposal has ebbed and flowed over time.
Gingrich seems to have gone full circle in his views on the proposal, and it qualifies in our book as a Full Flop.