Republican voters see the former House speaker as an attractive alternative to the little-loved front-runner. But is Newt any more conservative than his rival?
The Republican primary voters who continue to cast about for a presidential nominee not named Mitt Romney have lately alit on Newt Gingrich as their newest infatuation. Gingrich has plenty of appealing qualities, chief among them that he's entertaining. But why, exactly, should conservatives prefer him to Romney?
Going down the list of conservative objections to Romney, every one applies equally, if not more so, to Gingrich.
* Support for health-care mandates: Romney's embrace in his Massachusetts health-care reform of a requirement that individuals buy health insurance, which he's refused to repudiate, is his scarlet letter for many on the right; he says he opposes mandates at the federal level but that the provision was right for Massachusetts and promotes personal responsibility.
Gingrich, for his part, has long been a vigorous supporter of mandates -- from the 1990s, when many conservatives championed the idea in opposition to Hillary Clinton's health-reform proposal, to as recently as 2008, when he wrote in his book Real Change: "We should insist that everyone above a certain level buy coverage (or, if they are opposed to insurance, post a bond). Meanwhile, we should provide tax credits or subsidize private insurance for the poor." In a 2007 Des Moines Register op-ed, Gingrich specifically used the dreaded words "individual mandate," saying, "Personal responsibility extends to the purchase of health insurance."
It's not clear when Gingrich's position changed to his current vehement rejection of mandates. As recently as May he was speaking favorably about "some requirement you either have health insurance or you post a bond" -- comments that were followed by a hasty retreat the next day: "I am against any effort to impose a federal mandate on anyone because it is fundamentally wrong and, I believe, unconstitutional." In making that statement, Gingrich didn't explain the dissonance with what he'd said the day before.
* Squishy on abortion: Romney's conversion (or flip-flop, depending on your point of view) from pro-choice as a Massachusetts politician to pro-life as a national one is well known. Gingrich has never been vociferously pro-choice, and, unlike Romney, he has now signed the pro-life pledge proffered by the Susan B. Anthony List, which asks candidates to promote anti-abortion legislation, make pro-life appointments and cut off federal funds for abortion providers.
But -- as social-conservative purists like Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann have lately been pointing out -- in his days as the leader of a resurgent House GOP, Gingrich advocated a big tent. In 1990, for example, he said that rather than being strict abortion prohibitionists, the Republican Party ought to "be the party that on balance prefers the fewest abortions possible." He supported some taxpayer funding of abortion, a stance that his campaign now says he has reversed.
* Squishy on immigration: In the last debate, Gingrich made an emotional argument in favor of some sort of legalization process for some illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S., particularly those brought to the country as children. The resulting dust-up revealed that Romney's stance, beneath his many evasions, isn't materially different: He'd rather talk about securing the border, he doesn't want lawbreakers to get special treatment, but he also is not in favor of mass deportation. In 2006, he told Bloomberg that he would not have illegal immigrants "rounded up and box-carred out."
If immigration hawks are looking for a candidate who'll take a tougher stance than Romney, though, Gingrich's line in the debate showed he's not their man. "I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, 'Let's be humane in enforcing the law, without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families,'" he said.
* Generally squishy -- a flip-flopper: This is the main knock on Romney, from left and right alike -- that he changes his positions based on political expediency. While few politicians with long careers have been absolutely consistent, Gingrich has an especially rich history of reversing himself when something he said proved to be unpopular.
To take just a couple of recent examples, in 2008, when being "green" was fashionable, Gingrich recorded a television commercial for an Al Gore project in which he sat on a loveseat with Nancy Pelosi and declared, "We do agree our country must take action to address climate change." Now that he's running in a GOP primary that's hostile to environmental regulation, he's skeptical that anything needs to be done.
Earlier this year, when the Obama administration hadn't taken action on the violence breaking out in Libya, Gingrich called for immediate imposition of a no-fly zone. When the administration took his advice, though, he was against it: "I would not have intervened," he said. As one of his critics noted at the time, it was hard to see this swift reversal as anything other than blind partisanship -- knee-jerk opposition to Obama's stance, regardless of its policy merits.
Gingrich has basically admitted this was the reason for his reversal on health-care mandates: In the 1990s, he told the New Hampshire Union Leader, the individual mandate "was designed to block Hillarycare." Yet Gingrich maintains that Romney's flip-flops are objectionable because they were for political reasons, while his have been authentic changes of heart: "I wouldn't switch my positions for political reasons," he said recently. "It's perfectly reasonable to change your position if ... you see new things you didn't see."
* Not all that conservative, deep down: Many conservatives suspect that no matter how many conservative positions Romney espouses, deep in his heart he's just not one of them. It's a sense based on his record, his current policy proposals (such as an economic plan that gives suspicious emphasis to relief for the middle class), and his general tone and temperament. But Gingrich's record is hardly that of a right-wing crusader.
The 1994 takeover of the House Gingrich engineered was an enormous victory for the Republican Party, one for which Gingrich is still justly revered in GOP ranks. But he didn't do it by enforcing conservatism -- he couldn't have. Much of the "Contract With America" -- which was, after all, designed to appeal to swing voters -- was technocratic. For the landmark achievements he still touts, welfare reform and balancing the budget, Gingrich worked arm in arm -- and compromised -- with Bill Clinton.
This year, shortly after launching his candidacy, Gingrich didn't win many Republican friends when he blasted the House Republican budget proposal drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as "right-wing social engineering." As Ryan said at the time, "With allies like that, who needs the left?" Gingrich quickly repented and now says, "Paul Ryan came up with some very good ideas." But there's ample reason to question the true colors of a politician who, early in his career, was a state chairman for the presidential campaign of Nelson Rockefeller -- the emblem of liberal Republicanism that sought to halt the rise of conservatives like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. In a 1989 interview, Gingrich called this "the classic moderate wing of the party," and said it was where he had "spent most of my life."
So why are the anti-Romney conservatives flocking to Gingrich? In conversations with Republicans -- some Gingrich backers, some not -- about why he's more appealing than Romney, most acknowledge it basically comes down to style. Gingrich's tone is that of an angry crusader, unlike Romney's placid assurance. And because Gingrich has such a penchant to say whatever comes into his head, his inconsistencies tend to get chalked up to a lack of discipline rather than cold calculation.
As the Daily Caller's Matt Lewis put it:
Gingrich and Romney couldn't be more different. Gingrich questions authority, challenges conventional wisdom, and disputes premises. He also has fun. He is winsome. He can be undisciplined. He enjoys politics, and seems to gain energy from engaging in the battles. Romney, on the other hand, is a consummate "adult." He is highly disciplined. He plays by the rules, accepts reality as it is, and then -- within those confines -- sets about fixing things as best he can.
It's also true that if Gingrich and Romney really are so similar on paper, voters might as well pick Gingrich. Perhaps that's why Romney's camp sees Gingrich as a threat and will seek to highlight the former speaker's personal baggage.
But as Gingrich's current surge enters the closer-inspection phase, many conservatives may discover their infatuation with him is based on equal parts bluster and mythology. In the words of conservative guru Erick Erickson, the RedState.com founder: "The conservative warrior people tend to think Gingrich is, often is not."
Image credit: Reuters/Randall Hill
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Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.