The maelstrom of criticism that engulfed Newt Gingrich this week after he criticized the proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to convert Medicare into a voucher for younger adults captures an ironic reversal of roles—and an important shift in the power dynamics inside the GOP.
Gingrich’s collision with Ryan has cast the former House speaker in an unexpected role: as a party elder looking to tame a headstrong young conservative. In many respects, the episode reprises the dynamics that defined the confrontation during the 1995 budget shutdown between then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Gingrich—only with Gingrich now playing Dole’s part, and Ryan filling Gingrich’s old shoes.
Just as in the Dole-Gingrich confrontation then, conservative activists have decisively sided with the young House conservatives in the Gingrich-Ryan standoff today. That means, just as in 1996, GOP presidential candidates may find it hazardous to veer too far from House GOP’s agenda—a dynamic that provides them enormous power in defining the party’s message through 2012.
As Peter Wehner—an influential conservative thinker and former senior official in the George W. Bush administration—wrote this week, Gingrich “although … quite a large figure in the history of the modern GOP … found himself ground to dust in fewer than 24 hours” after challenging Ryan. “Other Republican presidential candidates must have taken notice.”
The fierce backlash against Gingrich’s criticism, which the former speaker has tried to soften all week, suggests the 2012 GOP presidential race could resemble 1996. In that race, support for the agenda of aggressive House GOP conservatives became the measuring rod for many activists of support for a conservative agenda.
In 1995, that dynamic left Dole with an excruciating choice as the budget confrontation between then-President Clinton and the congressional Republican majority precipitated two government shutdowns.
Privately, Dole considered a shutdown both bad policy and bad politics. Sheila Burke, Dole’s then-chief of staff, recalled that the senator had “lots of doubts, a huge hesitation” about a shutdown.
“It was both the human and policy element of it,” she said. “You were punishing government workers who should not be punished and you could not achieve your policy objectives.”
But Dole also had to secure the GOP presidential nomination, and feared that breaking with House Republicans intent on a showdown with Clinton could expose his right flank to a rival like Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
“It was his fear of breaking from what appeared to be a growing element of the party that was represented in the younger members in the House,” said Burke.
“He felt that to go to the base of the party in the presidential election he needed to be much more in step with that constituency than his normal instincts were to legislate would have allowed him to be.”
Gingrich, meanwhile, was quelling angry freshmen conservatives in his conference, many of them emboldened by the Republican revolution of 1994 to take on Clinton. But he was intent on extracting concessions from the president, convinced Clinton would eventually cave to his demands.
Dole eventually helped end the shutdown, declaring “Enough is enough” on the Senate floor in early January before pushing a resolution ending it. But the damage had been done: The public blamed Republicans for the impasse, and Clinton, who moved past Dole in polling during the controversy, eventually cruised to an easy reelection.
The parallels between Dole’s situation then and Gingrich’s today are eerie. Just as in 1995, House Republicans today have followed a landslide midterm election victory by advancing an extraordinarily ambitious agenda. The telegenic, confident Ryan is playing Gingrich’s role, leading a charge to fundamentally change the country’s entitlement system. Gingrich is now in the Dole position. But whereas Dole publicly suppressed his doubts about the House’s course, Gingrich aired his concerns about Ryan’s approach with characteristic flamboyance. During an already legendary appearance last Sunday on Meet the Press, he called the plan to voucherize Medicare “radical” and said it was politically toxic.
Conservatives formed a rhetorical firing line to excoriate Gingrich. “Gingrich to House GOP: Drop Dead,” read the headline from a Wall Street Journal editorial.
The most stinging rebuke perhaps came not from an elite conservative editorial board but an Iowa activist, who literally pointed a finger in Gingrich’s face on Monday during a trip to the first caucus state. “You’re an embarrassment to our party,” he said, captured in an online video that has been viewed more than 70,000 times. “Why don’t you get out before you make a bigger fool of yourself?”
On Tuesday night, Gingrich retreated to the point where he told Fox News Channel’s Greta Van Susteren that he “made a mistake” in his comments and would have voted for Ryan’s budget. The attacks on Gingrich underscore the extent to which conservative leaders—as in 1995—are defining the House GOP agenda as the benchmark of fealty to the party consensus—and moving quickly to punish anyone who challenges it.
That could eventually create headaches for other 2012 Republicans because, although none of them condemned the House GOP plan like Gingrich, several have held it at arm’s length.
“Newt’s the guinea pig here,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. “They were all backing away from it, but I think Newt’s the guy who has taken the heat.”
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for example, has said he supports a system that preserves conventional Medicare as an option, in addition to a voucher system—the same policy Gingrich described on Meet the Press. Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant confirmed to National Journal Daily his candidate hadn’t backed off that idea, saying he would elaborate on his full budget plan after formally launching his campaign.
But will making the Ryan budget, or at least some close approximation, the de-facto agenda of the Republican Party hurt the eventual GOP nominee? Although the results vary depending on question wording, many polls show significant doubts about the Republican plan. In a mid-April Washington Post/ABC poll, 65 percent of adults opposed voucherizing Medicare. Even Republicans have expressed ambivalence in several surveys.
The White House is clearly eager to tether the GOP to the Medicare change. It even weighed in Wednesday on the controversy swirling around Gingrich. “Biggest takeaway from the Gingrich flap—ending Medicare as we know it is the new GOP litmus test,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said in a tweet on Wednesday.
Campaigns will have to thread the needle between appeasing conservative activists and remaining viable in a general election, said Scott Reed, who ran Dole’s 1996 campaign. Their hope, and Reed’s prediction, is once House Republicans negotiate a deal on a debt-ceiling agreement, the field of presidential candidates will once again be able to set the agenda.
“Ryan’s ‘Path to Prosperity’ is the defining document right now on the table, and I imagine campaigns will take parts they like and distance themselves from the other party,” he said. “The eventual nominee will probably want to have a path to prosperity-type document.”
Ronald Brownstein contributed
This article appears in the May 19, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.