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Newt Launches Self Defense/Damage Control on Budget Remarks

As I mentioned earlier, Team Newt facilitated a conference call this afternoon between the candidate and a bevy of right-leaning reporters and analysts.  It lasted roughly 30 minutes.  In mounting his self-defense, Newt offered some welcome clarity, but also grasped at certain very thin distinctions that were, at times, hard to follow.

Newt made an opening statement that pushed back against accusations of racism coming from the Left (based on his comments about food stamps and Detroit), and dismissed the relevance of a remark he made in 1993 during the Hillarycare battle, which favored government healthcare mandates.  He said his demonstrable and consistent opposition to Obamacare speaks for itself.  Newt also said the very "narrowly focused" nature of David Gregory's question on the Ryan plan induced him to answer in a manner that was "more controversial" than he'd intended.  The point he was trying to make, he explained, was that a massive change to a major program should not be imposed on the American people without their consent.

He highlighted the "adversarial" nature of MTP and said he wishes he'd adopted a "more hostile" approach to parrying Gregory's queries.  I found myself questioning whether a Washington veteran like Newt can credibly claim to have been a victim of  naivety about the way MTP has treated political candidates (and everyone else, for that matter) since...well, forever.

Newt rejected the suggestion that he's flip-flopped on issues like Libya and Cap and Trade ("I've always opposed" cap and trade in its "current form," he asserted).  Follow the links and draw your own conclusions.  He also stressed that his role as a commentator is distinct from that of a candidate or leader.  He affirmed that he would have voted for the Ryan budget in the House last month because it "moves the discussion forward."  He said he favors "the general direction" of the plan, but remains "very worried" about some of the specifics -- which he again called "radical" changes that have not been "tested."  He informed us that he's "reaching out" to Paul Ryan and hopes to chat with him later today. 

Speaking about the political fallout of entitlement reform, Newt suggested that by touching Medicare, Republicans are "dealing with nitro-glycerin" because seniors take the program "very personally."  He instead offered support for an optional transition for seniors to shift away from Medicare's traditional fee-for-service system into Ryan-style exchanges. 

Asked about Democratic attacks using his words against Republican candidates (they've already begun), Newt said he'd be happy to cut campaign ads ("gratis") defending the targets of those broadsides.  The point Newt made over and over again was that he is wary of the GOP passing sweeping reforms that do not enjoy strong support from the American people.  The mentality of "we know better," he argued, was the Democrats' downfall on Obamacare.  I asked him what precise element of Ryan's plan constitutes "right-wing social engineering" -- his verbatim characterization on Sunday.  Gingrich claimed this statement was not directed specifically at the Ryan plan.  (Re-watch the clip and judge for yourself).  He also expressed the belief that the plan would cease to be "social engineering" if it were to gain the support of the governed.

Overall, did Gingrich help diffuse his predicament?  I'm not so sure.  Several of his answers struck me as rambling and (perhaps subconsciously) designed to obfuscate or shift away from core issues.  Newt's central point today was that he supports the
general goals of the Ryan plan, but that "imposing" controversial specifics on unwilling seniors would be "radical," and would amount to "social engineering."  First, is the public really all that "unwilling"?  Second, is obsessively tracking polls a viable or responsible way to steer the country off its inexorable path to fiscal calamity?  Ed Morrissey isn't convinced:

I’m still a little unconvinced on the point about voluntary change that Gingrich keeps making.  It sounds like an argument to do nothing and wait for public opinion to come around before advancing solutions — which may not be a bad strategy for issues that aren’t terribly acute.  We’re running a $1.6 trillion annual deficit now, though, and our national debt is rapidly approaching 100% of our GDP.  Shouldn’t elected officials demonstrate some leadership in a crisis?

Of course it's important for our leaders to advance their case to the public and win its consent, but a policy-by-polling mentality is the opposite of leadership.  Tough, necessary choices aren't made by politicians holding weather vanes.  They're made by leaders with compasses. 

UPDATE -  Along the lines of my conclusion, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page juxtaposes Gingrich and Paul Ryan's respective approaches to meaningful reforms:

In his recent campaign book, "To Save America," he describes Mr. Obama as bent on leading a "secular–socialist machine" that "represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did." Mr. Ryan speaks softly but proposes policies commensurate with America's problems. Mr. Gingrich speaks loudly but shrinks from hard choices. Who's the "radical" and who's the real leader?

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