If You're Looking for a Profligate Authoritarian, Gingrich Is Your Man

Jacob Sullum

12/14/2011 12:01:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

The first time Newt Gingrich disgusted me was in 1995, when the freshly installed speaker of the House proposed the death penalty for drug smugglers. Fifteen years later, I had a similar response when Gingrich demanded government action to stop Muslims from building a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center.

From the perspective of someone who wants to minimize the role of government in every aspect of our lives, Gingrich is bad in the ways conservatives tend to be bad -- and then some. At the same time, he is generally not good in the ways conservatives tend to be good, which makes me wonder why anyone would prefer him to Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate.

Gingrich's bloodthirsty enthusiasm for the never-ending, always-failing war on drugs is especially appalling because he casually dismissed his own pot smoking as "a sign that we were alive and in graduate school in that era."

Last month, he expressed admiration for Singapore's drug policy, which includes forcible testing of suspected drug users, long prison sentences for possession and mandatory execution of anyone caught with more than a specified amount. "They've been very draconian," Gingrich said, meaning it as a compliment.

Last year, Gingrich likewise put his characteristically reckless spin on criticism of the "Ground Zero mosque." Unlike Sarah Palin, who urged the project's supporters not to build it but conceded they had a constitutional right to do so, Gingrich insisted "there should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia" -- and called for state or federal intervention to enforce that arbitrary edict. He nevertheless presents himself as a champion of religious liberty.

Gingrich's apocalyptic view of the "long war" between "the modern world" and "radical Islamism" also has led him to endorse censorship and warrantless domestic wiretaps, along with the suspension of due process that many conservatives think is appropriate whenever the president cries "national security." And lest such constitutional violations be overturned, Gingrich recommends that Congress abolish the courts of judges who reach decisions it does not like, or simply declare its acts exempt from judicial review.

Aside from the Second Amendment, Gingrich does not seem to have much regard for the Bill of Rights, and that includes the 10th Amendment, which reflects the Framers' intent that the federal government have only those powers expressly granted by the Constitution, the rest being "reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." At Saturday's Republican presidential debate, Gingrich said one of his rivals, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, "got me engaged about three years ago on this whole 10th Amendment in a big, serious way."

By his own account, then, Gingrich, who served more than two decades in Congress and brags about his credentials as an historian, did not begin to think seriously about the limits that federalism imposes on the national government until 2008. That may explain why he did not realize until this year that a law requiring people to buy health insurance exceeds Congress' powers under the Commerce Clause.

Gingrich's lack of familiarity with "this whole 10th Amendment" may also explain his detailed policy recommendations for education, an area where the federal government has no constitutional authority. Not to mention his defense of government-funded moon bases and Mars missions as ways to "give young people a reason to study science and math and technology."

Constitutional issues aside, Gingrich's tendency to think government should subsidize whatever strikes his fancy, whether it's extraterrestrial colonies, prescription drugs or alternative energy sources, does not inspire confidence in his alleged fiscal conservatism. On that point the most damning comment I've seen recently came from New York Times columnist David Brooks. Last week, Brooks, a "national greatness" conservative who believes "energetic government is good for its own sake," wrote that Gingrich "has no Hayekian modesty to restrain his faith in statist endeavor" and therefore "loves government more than I do." Yikes.