Newt Gingrich on Medicare: Too "radical" even for Republicans.

Newt Gingrich on Medicare: Too "radical" even for Republicans.

Newt Gingrich on Medicare: Too "radical" even for Republicans.

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May 18 2011 6:19 PM

Newtered

The problem with an "ideas candidate" is that he has, well, ideas.

Republicans are upset that Newt Gingrich used the word "radical" to describe House budget Chairman Paul Ryan's Medicare plan. But wasn't radical the whole point of Ryan's plan? It's the P90X of plans—something extreme to boast about. Radical was the promise of the Republicans who are now in charge of the House. Tea Party patriots didn't elect them to be timid. Never mind, though, you're not allowed to use the word radical. It has negative connotations.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Click image to expand.
Newt Gingrich
John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a co-anchor of CBS This Morning, co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest, host of the Whistlestop podcast, and author of Whistlestop and On Her Trail.

Who helped radicalize the word radical? Newt Gingrich. In a 1996 memo to members of GOPAC—the political farm team he created and nurtured to grow a new conservative majority—Gingrich lists it among those "powerful words" candidates should use to "create a clear and easily understood contrast." It's one of his favorites. In a speech last year, for example, he used seven different variations of the word to describe Obama and Democratic perfidies (a word not on the Gingrich list but used occasionally by the literati).

Gingrich also said the Ryan plan was "right-wing social engineering," a phrase not on the GOPAC list but also not so nice to say about members of your own party. The backlash from conservatives has been withering, and Gingrich has been in frantic damage control, calling Ryan to apologize and taking to the airwaves to explain himself.

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What's surprising is not that this is happening. Few in Republican politics think Gingrich has a chance to be nominated for president, much less elected. What's surprising is how quickly Republicans have gone from seeing Gingrich as a welcome addition to the presidential conversation to a pariah who must be exorcised before Labor Day. (After his next interview, they may move the date to Memorial Day.)

In the GOPAC memo Gingrich heralds another GOPAC product titled "Language Matters," an instructional tape created to help candidates hone their political skills: "As the tapes have been used in training sessions across the country and mailed to candidates we have heard a plaintive plea, 'I wish I could speak like Newt.' That takes years of practice. But, we believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little."

Sure, go ahead and laugh. But this memo and the countless millions of memos Gingrich sent over the years helped to build his reputation as an ideas man. It also helped build the modern Republican Party. Even Republicans who were on rival campaigns or held a dim view of his chances have said his candidacy is good for the party. He is the ideas candidate. He will help sharpen the other candidates' arguments. He will beat up on President Obama in an effective way.

That's over. Now the plaintive plea coming from conservatives is that Gingrich stop speaking entirely. The Wall Street Journal called him a political opportunist. The Club for Growth suggested he should be in another party. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said he "cut [Ryan] off at the knees." On redstate.com, Tabitha Hale wrote that it wasn't the first time he'd undermined the party. A random voter in Iowa even confronted Gingrich. (Mitt Romney must be relieved; last week he was the one in the GOP elite penalty box.)

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The criticism is not about whether Gingrich should or could be president. It's that he is a malevolent force that will imperil the chances of other candidates and the larger Republican experiment. He threatens the House Republican negotiations with the White House by giving Democrats a way to attack the GOP as too extreme. (As if on cue, Sen. Chuck Schumer did just that, saying, "I couldn't agree more" with Gingrich's assessment of the Ryan plan.) Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant, suggested that Gingrich provided just the kind of Republican caricature that offers Obama the best possible chance of victory. Castellanos knows whereof he speaks; he worked for Bob Dole in 1996, when a previous president used Gingrich to taint the GOP presidential candidate.

Perhaps this outcome was to be expected, and not just because Gingrich is famously undisciplined. An ideas candidate is going to have actual ideas and say them out loud. Perhaps the expectation was that Gingrich was going to have only helpful or harmless ideas. No one would expect a presidential candidate to say anything more abrasive than a Snuggie. Anything else would be too radical.

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