Gingrich's Campaign Looks Over Before It Begins

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Newt Gingrich got his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination off to a bold, if perplexing, start by attacking Paul Ryan's budget plan as "right-wing social engineering" and affirming his support for the individual mandate in health care reform. In subsequent clarifications, he said he was opposed to the Obama mandate on constitutional grounds--the same rationale Mitt Romney offers in defence of his Massachusetts plan--and said he was not in a fight with Paul Ryan even though they disagree about how to reform Medicare. Ryan said, "With allies like that, who needs the left?"

Gingrich has backed some form of mandate in health care for years. Give him some credit for sticking to this line (which also happens to be correct). But still one wonders how he expects to get the nomination from a party so bitterly opposed to that view. Republicans in Congress and on the airwaves queued up to stamp on him. It's not good to be entirely occupied with damage control on day one of your campaign.

Something other GOP candidates might be asking themselves is how far, if at all, they are now allowed to disagree with the Ryan budget. The idea that it cannot be criticised would be strange, bearing in mind that the party has very mixed feelings about it. Many Republicans do in fact disagree with Ryan's Medicare plan. A lot of them think it's insane. Of course one can disagree with Ryan's proposal--suggest ways of improving it, let's put it that way--without contemptuously dismissing it as "right-wing social engineering".  But the party would apparently rather not talk about it than thrash the issues out and come up with something better. Again, the permanent election campaign shuts down intelligent thinking about policy.

A simple way to make the Ryan Medicare plan  more palatable would be to change the formula he proposes for uprating the value of the voucher--to revert, in other words, to the plan he and Alice Rivlin proposed last year. A sufficiently generous voucher comes back within the range of the politically possible, though the question of how to contain costs, of course, would remain. What a shame if this becomes another Issue That Cannot Be Discussed. Like raising taxes on the middle class, or reforming the immigration laws, for instance.

Let me clarify my own position on something. Yesterday I said it was impressive that Romney was still in the running for the nomination, given his support for a health care mandate (in states that choose to impose one). Still in the running might have been putting it mildly. As I was predicting that Romney couldn't win, supporters in Las Vegas were conducting a one-day funding drive that raised more than $10m. Gosh. Somebody out there likes him. Money isn't everything in US politics--see what happened in 2008--but it certainly doesn't hurt.

By the way, Donald Trump says he isn't running. Yes, I too was very surprised by that.

Drop-down image credit: Reuters

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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