When Bush Ran Up the Deficit Gingrich Urged Him On

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During a 2003 "Meet the Press" appearance, Gingrich predicted America wouldn't return to balanced budgets until it accomplished much more

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On December 7, 2003, Newt Gingrich appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" opposite Tim Russert, who asked about the beginnings of conservative discontent over President Bush's profligate spending impulse:

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the domestic front. Here's the headline of yesterday's paper: "Conservatives Criticize Bush On Spending." You ran in 1994 with a Contract with America, pledging a balanced budget. Deficit's now $500 billion.

MR. GINGRICH: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: You supported the president's Medicare bill, another $400 billion entitlement. What happened to balanced budgets and Republicans?

Years later, the Tea Party would ask that same question. How did Republicans go from being the party of the Contract with America to the big spending, deficit expanding "compassionate conservatives" who passed No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D, a huge entitlement expansion?

Well, back in 2003, the architect of the Contract with America helpfully explained his own outlook.

MR. GINGRICH: Look, there are three things happening to the balanced budget, and I--having authored the only consecutive large balanced budget since the 1920s, I think I can talk about this with some directness. You had a recession, you had the beginning of a real long-term global war on terrorism, and you have the continuous rise of health costs. Now, as a fiscal conservative who wants to go back to a balanced budget, until you get economic growth up, until you win the war, or at least decisively contain it, and until you transform the health system, you're not going to get back to a balanced budget.

Got that, fiscal conservatives? Newt Gingrich will balance the budget again... as soon as he first ends the recession, transforms the health-care system, and wins America's war on terrorism.

How long will that take?

Gingrich didn't say on "Meet the Press." But in Winning the Future of Conservatism he stated, "We are engaged in a long war with the Irreconcilable Wing of Islam. It is possible this war will last 30 to 70 years or longer. We have no strategy designed for a war of this length. We have no budgeting or structure designed to sustain a war of this kind." And elsewhere he has talked about increasing the State Department budget by 50 percent and significantly increasing defense spending.

But back to that "Meet the Press" interview. Keep in mind that the main feature of Medicare Part D was for the federal government to subsidize the prescription drugs of Medicare beneficiaries.

Here's what Gingrich said next:

I mean, fighting at the margins over the next appropriations bill is almost irrelevant in the strategic issue. And that's why we were so successful in '95, '96 because we understood you had to reform Medicare or you had to reform welfare, you had to do big things if you wanted to get to a balanced budget. I strongly supported the Medicare bill because it is a very significant step in the right direction.

Health savings accounts where people will be able to have an insurance policy that allows them to save $2,600 an individual, and $5,100 a couple, is an enormous step, the biggest step since 1943 towards re-establishing the health system where you are, in the market, you're making the decisions, you're informed and involved. If we don't transform the health system, you cannot balance the budget. I want to say one other thing, though. You and I for the first time in our lives are living in a potentially deflationary environment. All of our life when we studied public policy in college and all that stuff, we worried about inflation. There is a very real possibility that the scale of productivity improvement combined with the rise of China and India create a 25- or 30-year cycle that could well be deflationary rather than inflationary. And I think that requires us to think about very different monetary policies and very different fiscal policies.

This is what's so confounding about Tea Party support for Newt Gingrich. The guy says and does everything that gets other politicians excommunicated by fiscal conservatives. He explicitly said (at least before he started running for president) that fighting over deficits at the margin doesn't matter - the antithesis of the attitude held by Tea Partiers -- his preferred path to deficit reduction involves not spending cuts, but fundamentally reforming the health care system (this from a guy who once supported an individual mandate) and he has also said that the deficit won't be eliminated until we win a war that in his estimation will last from 30 to 70 years.

I am not commenting on whether he's right or wrong about all this. (The man takes so many contrasting positions and blurts out so many ideas on an average day that he is at all times right and wrong). But if you're a Tea Partier, how is it that he is an acceptable nominee? It makes no sense. The idea that this is the guy who's going to eliminate the budget deficit is just nuts.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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