Here’s one way not to start a presidential campaign: Apologizing to one of the Republican Party’s most influential leaders.
But less than one week after declaring a run, it’s how Newt Gingrich has started his—and the 72 hours of conservative spitfire that led to the apology is already sparking doubts about the former GOP leader’s ability to compete in the wide-open battle for his party’s nomination.
Gingrich apologized on Tuesday afternoon to Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Ryan's office confirms, after Gingrich criticized the House Budget Committee chairman’s plan to voucherize Medicare for those younger than 55. Gingrich said during a Sunday appearance on Meet the Press that it was a mistake to make the voucher system mandatory and called the plan politically undoable, setting off a storm of criticism that continued unabated until Tuesday.
Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler told National Journal his boss “apologized for his in-artful way of expressing his point” and said there weren’t any “hard feelings between the two.” But Tyler added that Gingrich wasn’t backing off that criticism and that he wanted to work with Ryan to devise a plan that would be popular with the public.
“We look forward to help winning the argument,” said Tyler. “And then we’ll win the vote.”
The former House speaker's campaign can only hope the apology dulls the torrent of criticism directed at it during the last three days. The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote that Gingrich “chose to throw his former allies in the GOP House not so much under the bus as off the Grand Canyon rim,” while influential South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said his comments as “absolutely unfortunate.”
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Their anger stems at least in part from the fact that Gingrich’s comments have given Democrats a large cudgel as they use Ryan’s budget as a political tool. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a press release on Tuesday blasting the Medicare plan as something so radical “even Newt Gingrich opposes” it. And Republican support for reforming Medicare, which nearly every member of the House GOP supported, is credited in large part for making a special election in a western New York congressional district, originally seen as a safe Republican seat, become a toss-up in the week before the election.
That could explain why even some former allies are suddenly brandishing sharp criticism. The fiscal conservative group Club for Growth, which on Monday released a white paper saying Gingrich would “probably be a pro-growth president,” on Tuesday suggested the onetime GOP leader should change political parties.
“The Ryan budget, while not perfect, represents a great first start to talk about entitlement reform,” said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller in a statement to National Journal. “And Congressman Ryan deserves praise for his willingness to discuss the important issues facing Medicare and other entitlements.
“And that’s why it’s beyond bizarre for Speaker Gingrich to call the Ryan budget radical,” he added. “What’s radical are Newt Gingrich’s comments. Perhaps he’s in the wrong party.”
Gingrich’s willingness to tackle what has become one of the GOP’s central policy platforms—when his rivals have shied away from criticizing it even if not necessarily embracing its specifics—illustrates what could be simultaneously one of his greatest strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, he’s capable of devising policy positions that stand out in a sea of banal talking points, unafraid to come up with his own ideas. In a wide-open primary, distinguishing your candidacy could be key.
“We’re talking about a primary right now where the field is pretty much wide open,” said Mike DuHaime, who ran Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign in 2008. “It’s going to take something to distinguish one of the candidates from the others. So I don’t think you should be afraid of throwing out ideas—take some good with the bad.”
But Gingrich's penchant for controversy can also land him in hot political water, as it has this week. It was a weakness that afflicted him while in office, and it’s unlikely 12 years as a political commentator taught him greater discipline. Gingrich needs to transform if he wants to be successful, said Jim Dyke, a GOP consultant who had worked with Haley Barbour before he decided not to run
“When you’re a pundit, you’re a constituency of one,” said Dyke. “And when you’re a candidate, you have millions of constituents in multiple states, including the national party.”
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