Mike Needham

Over the next year, as the Republican primary process plays out, there will be plenty of time for silliness, scoring political points, and mischaracterizations of each candidate’s record. But hidden amongst all the typical nonsense will also be some diamond in the rough moments. On those rare occasions, we will get a real glimpse into who each candidate is and what type of president he or she may be.

Newt Gingrich’s appearance on Meet the Press may have been one such moment. In it, he praised an individual mandate and criticized Paul Ryan's approach to Medicare. Was Newt intentionally going after a fiscally liberal space in the GOP electorate abandoned by Mike Huckabee's decision not to run? Was it just careless wording?

Liberals, who are seeking to damage conservative attempts to save Medicare from fiscal bankruptcy, are already using those comments. A “Who’s Who” of conservative and tea party leaders appropriately criticized Gingrich, who ultimately apologized and confirmed he would indeed support conservative attempts to save Medicare.

Last week, the Club for Growth released their first presidential white paper of this cycle, appropriately enough on Newt Gingrich. The Club’s presidential white paper series is one of the critical parts of the primary process. Each essay, released over the course of the next several months, provides a comprehensive view of the presidential aspirants’ records on the critical issues facing our nation, which the Club for Growth advocates so powerfully for: the achievement of prosperity and opportunity through economic freedom.

Those of us working presidential campaigns in 2008 took these reports very seriously. A positive report from the Club for Growth would be cited over and over in debates and television ads. Mike Huckabee heard repeatedly the Club’s assessment that his proposed path for our nation “looks more like the path of John Edwards than it does a limited-government, economic conservative.”

Which makes the Club's report on Gingrich worth examining in detail. Their paper shows Gingrich as a strong fiscal conservative present at most of the major conservative victories of the last 30 years, but who also has a long history of occasionally hurting the cause of fiscal conservatism in America.

On taxes, Gingrich has demonstrated a firm commitment to pro-growth reforms that includes flatter rates and a broader base. Gingrich also displayed tremendous political courage in his vocal opposition to the 1990 Bush tax hikes. Over time, however, he has demonstrated a disturbing tendency to use the tax code to engineer his own social priorities, advocating tax credits for things like homeownership, plug-in cars and biofuels.

Thus begins the riddle of Newt Gingrich. More often than not, he’s moving in the right direction, but he is more than willing to deviate from a principled path, especially when it comes to issues of energy and health care.

Gingrich’s record on spending provides another telling example. Overall, Gingrich is a fervent supporter of reducing the size and scope of government. From Gramm-Rudman and a balanced budget amendment to welfare reform, he has been on the right side of the issue. Most notably, however, was his strong support of the Medicare drug benefit bill, which now has $16 trillion in unfunded liabilities.

Despite his Medicare mistakes, Gingrich’s position on entitlement reform includes strong support for personal accounts for Social Security, block-granting Medicaid to the states and an equal tax treatment of health care expenses. He is also expected to outline his health care reform ideas later this week

When it comes to regulation, the Club artfully notes, “Gingrich’s penchant for tinkering undermines his otherwise very strong record of pro-growth deregulation.” Indeed, from Sarbanes-Oxley to Dodd-Frank, Gingrich has opposed some of the most destructive regulations of our time. However, on the issue of energy, the lifeblood of our economy, Gingrich’s record is alarming. In addition to defending the federal government’s perverse ethanol policies, Gingrich sat on a couch with Nancy Pelosi urging Congress to enact a cap-and-trade scheme. It’s all very telling.

In a debate with Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Gingrich has said, “I would agree you would get more change more rapidly with an incentivized market rather than a laissez-faire approach.” Conservatives are rightly skeptical when politicians talk about government incentivizing the market.

The Club concludes that Gingrich’s record “leads one to be rather unsure what kind of president Newt Gingrich would be.” Gingrich’s unscripted incident on Meet the Press only serves to confirm that uncertainty.

Mike Needham

Mike Needham is the Chief Executive Officer of Heritage Action for America, a grassroots advocacy organization dedicated to advancing legislation that promotes freedom, opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.