Newt Is the Problem
On health-care entitlements, Newt has moved left.


Avik Roy

As a single-sentence epitaph for Candidate Gingrich, that line is at least as good as John Kerry’s excuse that he “actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

And we’re just getting warmed up. Newt Gingrich is the only candidate in the GOP presidential race to have explicitly endorsed a federal requirement that all individuals buy health insurance. He did so in 1993 when Republicans were seeking a way of showing that they, too, had a plan for addressing the problem of the uninsured.

When shown a video of his endorsement of a federal mandate by Greta Van Susteren in May 2011, Gingrich was defensive and abrupt. “That was a clip from 1993, when in fact, the conservative position was to have individual insurance, in opposition to Hillarycare — because she wanted everybody to be in government — but let’s get that out of the way, okay?”

Van Susteren asked if Gingrich’s position had evolved. “So I’m sure I understand: So are you saying in 1993, that there was some sort of hybrid of mandate or whatever, it was supported by the Republican party? And now, that was in response to the Clinton administration. And now you’ve changed, is that it?”

Gingrich’s response was classic Newt. “No, no,” he said. “I’m saying that 18 — imagine this in your own case. I’m saying that you see a 20-second clip from 18 years ago, when you were fighting Hillarycare, and when virtually everybody in the conservative movement was united in trying to stop Hillarycare. Now, nobody at that time was talking about the Tenth Amendment. Nobody at that time was talking about these kind of constitutional issues. But to jump from that and say, ‘Gosh, if Newt said this in 1993, he must be for Obama’ — skipping, by the way, two-and-a-half years of active, consistent opposition to Obamacare? I mean, I think the kind of amnesia that Washington gets into is, frankly, silly.”

It’s unclear which is a worse indictment of Gingrich’s governing style. Is it worse that Gingrich, who was about to become second in line to the presidency, was ignorant of the obvious constitutional problems with the federal government’s forcing everyone to buy a private product? Or is it worse that Gingrich was willing to promote the adoption an unconstitutional measure purely for the tactical reason of “trying to stop Hillarycare” ? It’s as if Gingrich were to say, “Don’t believe anything I say when I’m trying to oppose a Democratic policy initiative. I’m not sincerely interested in providing an alternative solution, so trampling the Constitution to thwart Democrats is no big deal.”

Note, too, Newt’s go-to gambit for addressing the inconsistencies in his record: evade the question and attack the questioner as a member of the Washington conspiracy against constructive dialogue. This tactic works best against liberal or centrist reporters, whom Republican voters dislike. But make no mistake: It is most often a way for Gingrich to avoid difficult questions. It’s a technique that can work against pliable journalists in a Republican primary, but he won’t get away with it in a general election against President Obama.

And then there’s Gingrich’s turbulent four-year tenure as speaker of the House, in which he was as responsible as anyone for the growth of federal health-care entitlements to their current unsustainable levels.

In 1997, the Gingrich-led House of Representatives passed legislation creating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or S-CHIP, which was then the largest statutory expansion of Medicaid since the program was founded in 1965. Today, thanks to Newt Gingrich, nearly 4 in 10 children in the United States are on Medicaid. Many of those kids were forced off of higher-quality private-sector health coverage and forced into the Medicaid ghetto, where poor children die of toothaches due to inadequate care.

Another dubious part of the 1997 Gingrich-Clinton budget deal was the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate, in which the Gingrich-led House passed what has become one of Washington’s favorite accounting gimmicks: pretending to drastically cut Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals in the future, so as to make the long-term budget outlook appear better than it is, while in reality passing “doc fix” legislation each year that keeps Medicare payments on their prior trajectory. The “doc fix” that Congress is contemplating for 2012 will cost $22 billion, a figure that goes up over time as the gap widens between what the 1997 law prescribed and what Medicare costs today.

The Sustainable Growth Rate has been useful for one thing: letting Democrats have it both ways. They get to claim that Obamacare is “fiscally responsible” because the Congressional Budget Office includes these fictional Medicare cuts that never materialize. At the same time, Democrats can pillory the Paul Ryan plan as, to borrow a phrase, “radical, right-wing social engineering,” because its reductions in Medicare spending might actually go into effect.

Indeed, Democrats got to use the same playbook in 1997, painting Gingrich Republicans as being mean to seniors, even though Gingrich didn’t actually make a dent in the problem of Medicare’s runaway growth. This is a pattern that recurs in Gingrich’s record.