By A.B. Stoddard - 05/18/11 10:52 PM EDT
With a resigned sweep of his hands, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) brushed confetti off a table where he was signing books in Minneapolis on Tuesday after a protester had dumped it in his hair. It symbolized Gingrich’s moment — it’s cleanup time, the party’s over.
Apologizing to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), after calling his Medicare reform plan “radical,” capped 48 hours of frantic repentance for an unrepentant revolutionary who melted down on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last weekend. Struggling to rescue his week-old presidential campaign, Gingrich has taken to Twitter, YouTube and blogs to backtrack not only on his assault on Ryan but also his tacit endorsement of a “variation” of a mandate for health insurance that is anathema to the very conservative primary voters he is trying to romance.
This is the Gingrich paradox. His famously black-and-white rhetoric — Democratic policies are nothing short of a threat to civilization — rarely matches his political positions, which are often quite gray. He has indeed always backed a mandate to buy insurance, and he prefers a Medicare plan that provides opt-out choices to one that does away with the current delivery system. Instead of using balance or nuance to back away from Ryan’s controversial plan, Gingrich chose to eviscerate it. His comments were also an attack on Ryan, who has replaced Gingrich as the GOP’s man of ideas, but whom Gingrich described as “a very close friend.”
Newtologists are unsurprised by his unraveling. He wasn’t expected to cheat on his third wife, but he would in time run his mouth once more. It is a fatal flaw for the would-be visionary who has yearned to become a historical figure. In 2003, Gingrich resurfaced from self-imposed hibernation to make a speech in which he criticized Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent trip to Syria as “ludicrous,” and accused the State Department of undoing “all of the fruits of hard-won victory” in Iraq. On assignment for the Boston Globe I reached Gingrich by phone after his spokesman had dodged requests for an interview. I anticipated that Gingrich would politely but firmly rebuke me and hang up. Instead he said calmly that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who had criticized Gingrich, was like “a squid blowing out ink to hide from predators.” Having climbed out of his hiding place, to a reprimand by phone from President Bush’s top adviser, Karl Rove, Gingrich wasn’t content to crawl back inside. “Gingrich has been a reformer and a transformer his whole public life,” Joe Gaylord, a close adviser, told me for the Globe story. “This is clearly in character with what he does. He initially leads the charge and takes the beach. There are always casualties.”
Not much has changed in eight years, or ever. On Planet Gingrich, aides and the warrior himself believe he can still repair the damage and go on to lead the free world after what they claim was the result of the “gotcha press” conservatives inevitably attract. But the party did not rise up to defend Gingrich this week; rather, Republicans expressed their outrage, dismissed his prospects and are working to hasten his demise.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.