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Gingrich The 'Social Engineer'

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There's never any accounting for a Newt Gingrich idea, or even for Newt himself, who never steps out of the spotlight, never leaves a thought unexpressed, and seems to crave the microphone and TV camera the way a 3-year-old craves peanut butter.

The Republican Medicare plan is "right-wing social engineering"? Aw, come on, Newt. Does the aroma of presidential politics come to us on the breezes from "Meet the Press," from which vantage point Newt addressed us Sunday? Maybe he hopes to pick up Democratic votes through his new "moderation," or whatever it is.

The Gingrich take on social engineering is a fascinating one. According to the ordinary understanding, a social engineer is someone who wants to use the power of government to change behavior.

In a way, you could accuse House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of wanting to change behavior by means of his famous plan for giving Americans under 55 a federal voucher with which to purchase health insurance, lest Medicare go broke in the next decade or so.

"Change behavior," yes. Use government as a lever in the determining of social ends and methods? Not quite. That's the urgent difference between Ryan and Gingrich. The former aims at individual decision-making. Social engineering means standing behind the individual and tightening the rope around his wrist to make sure government's plan for him gets fulfilled. The idea is to undo the harm done by nearly half a century of promising Americans medical benefits that the government should have suspected it might one day be unable to afford.

There's always been something funny about Newt's conservatism. Newt likes the Big Idea -- the grand, overarching concept. Conservatism of the sort that Barry Goldwater and Bill Buckley first marketed and then Ronald Reagan took up with some success. It distrusts inherently the Big Idea, inasmuch as Big Ideas need to be enforceable. If you give ordinary people latitude to reject the Big Idea, to do things their own way, the scheme collapses.

It turns out that Gingrich doesn't actually have an idea of his own to contrast with Ryan's on Medicare. When it comes to Obamacare, which Newt rightly finds "radical," he wants to shift the social engineering responsibility to the state level from the federal; to adopt, in other words, something akin to the Mitt Romney plan that was adopted a few years back in Massachusetts.

Conservatives generally believe decision-making should proceed where possible, from the lowest authority level in opposition to the principle of one-size-fits-all. On the other hand, conservatives prefer that individuals make the economic decisions affecting them directly rather than outsource those decisions to government.

Well, making heads or tails of Newt Gingrich never has been easy, a factor -- if I may change the game-of-chance image -- that gives wild-card status to his presidential bid. Who knows what he will do or say next? Or why? The uncertainty isn't likely to help much with Republican voters who view attempts -- the Ryan plan -- to reverse the effects of social engineering as the opposite, not the complement, to social engineering.

In one respect, Gingrich lives up to the challenge of the modern presidential candidacy, which is to get attention by standing out from the pack of fellow candidates while making the solving of huge problems sound like child's play. Such a gambit can make Republicans uncomfortable: "Ex-Speaker Slams Fake Conservatives" or something of the sort. Is Newt more concerned with selling the New Newt than with putting the social engineers in their place? It's almost too obvious a question to ask. The world according to Newt is the only world Newt ever seems to find comfortable: wherein he grandly diagnoses our common woes, makes speeches, sells tapes, sells books and markets himself with zeal.

Not a few conservatives groaned inwardly when Newt seemed to think he was complimenting our nation with the news that he has come -- again -- to save it. All we have to do is do what he says. If that isn't social engineering, maybe someone could propose a good definition.

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