Paul Ryan questions Gingrich's leadership on budget issues

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) slammed GOP presidential front-runner Newt Gingrichs comment that Republicans should not attempt to “impose” unpopular fiscal programs as shortsighted and lacking leadership in an interview Wednesday.

“This is not the 1990s,” Ryan said to the National Review. “The ‘Mediscare’ is not working and we should not back down from this fight. I, for one, believe the country is ready, they’re hungry for it. They are ready to hear real solutions. We shouldn’t wait around for the status quo to become popular.”

Ryan and Gingrich had sparred earlier in the campaign, when the former Speaker denounced Paul’s budget plan as “right-wing social engineering.” Gingrich later backed off that position and apologized to Ryan.

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The matter seemed settled until an interview Gingrich did last Friday on the “Coffee & Markets” podcast. In the interview, Gingrich again knocked the Ryan plan as potential political “suicide.”

“Reagan ran to be a popular president, not to maximize suicide,” Gingrich said. “And I think conservatives have got to understand, you govern over the long run by having the American people think you’re doing a good job and think you’re doing what they want. Now the question is, how do you have creative leadership that achieves the right values in a popular way?”

Gingrich went on to say that while he supported Ryan’s budget plan, he didn’t believe it currently politically viable. The budget chairman’s plan, dubbed “premium support,” would use Medicare dollars to partially subsidize seniors’ purchases of private insurance. 

“Where I think Ryan’s onto something I actually support, which is that you ought to have a premium-support option, I wouldn’t do it in 10 years, I would do it next year, but I would do it as a voluntary program,” Gingrich said. “And then I would go to the insurance industry and say to them, ‘Is there a way you could make a premium-support option really desirable?’”

But Ryan said true leaders shouldn’t treat voters, “who don’t want to be pandered to like children,” as incapable of understanding hard choices.

“Leaders don’t follow the polls, leaders change the polls,” Ryan said. “We have moved so far in advancing entitlement reform, not just in Congress but in this race, with most of the candidates embracing comprehensive entitlement reform. That has been a very good thing. At this point, we should be moving forward, not moving backwards.”

Thus far, Gingrich has been able to rally conservatives disenchanted with Mitt Romney around his campaign. But his poll numbers have seen signs of slippage this week as the spotlight of the campaign — both from the media and other candidates — has shone brightly on the former Speaker. A spat with Ryan could further damage Gingrich’s efforts to solidify his support.

“Leaders need to go out and change things, speaking to people as adults,” Ryan said. “We should not shy away from this fight, even though we know the Democrats will demagogue us.”