When Bill Clinton praised Newt Gingrich recently as the “thinking” Republican candidate, he wasn’t merely trying to plant the kiss of death on his old nemesis. No doubt the former president’s praise for the former Speaker was sincere, although he also noted that the intellectual bar in the Republican field for this cycle is extraordinarily low.
But as Gingrich surely understands, what Clinton respects is what Republican voters angrily reject: that is, a politician sufficiently thoughtful to have endorsed not only the individual health insurance mandate — as Gingrich did a few years ago — but to have promoted several other fundamental elements of the Obama health reform that he now loudly condemns. His demagogic attacks on Obamacare are bogus, of course, but the problem goes much deeper than mere hypocrisy.
On close inspection, Gingrich was just as moderate on health care reform as Mitt Romney ever was. He seems just as prone to flip-flopping on major issues as Romney. He sounds just as cynical as Romney in his political opportunism. And by any measure of supposed conservative morality, he looks considerably inferior to Romney in his personal and ethical conduct throughout his life.
So why would Republicans suddenly rush to the standard of such a discredited and untrustworthy figure? The most plausible explanation is prejudice against Romney’s faith – an ironic reprise of the Republican Party’s historic exploitation of racial, religious and ethnic fears for political gain.
Unless some double standard is at play, it’s hard to see why Pat Robertson and other leaders of the religious right, along with various fellow candidates, are urging Herman Cain to quit the presidential race because he is alleged to have had an extramarital affair — but can tolerate Gingrich’s three marriages and grossly outrageous conduct toward his first two wives. Or perhaps not — for as any longtime observer of the Republican right knows, this kind of hypocrisy has been rampant for decades. The Republican Congressional class of 1994, brought to Capitol Hill by Gingrich’s GOPAC organization as well as Robertson’s Christian Coalition, was rife with every brand of infidelity and immorality, following in the mold of its leader (see my 2003 book, “Big Lies,” for the unedifying details).
What is even more telling than Gingrich’s personal resume is his political infidelity to right-wing principle, such as it is, and his deviation from Tea Party orthodoxy on the critical issue of health care reform. Although he now routinely shrieks about “Obamacare” with all the fervor of a Tea Party fanatic, the truth was explicated in two devastating stories on Monday. On the front page of the New York Times, the real purpose of his Center for Health Transformation “for-profit think-tank” stood exposed as a shill for drug companies and other health and medical companies seeking federal and state subsidies. For all intents and purposes he acted as a lobbyist, whether he will admit it or not. And “Think Progress,” the excellent news site of the Center for American Progress, published a revealing chart displayed quotes from Gingrich on health care, matched to key sections of the American Care Act, which demonstrate clearly how the Obama reforms derive from bipartisan ideas he promoted during the years before Democrats passed that bill.
Republican voters are notoriously impervious to facts, partly thanks to the nature of Fox News and many of the news outlets they favor. But in this instance, the primary process is forcing many facts about Gingrich into the open. And that in turn could force Republicans to confront their own real reasons for selecting him and rejecting Romney. They may also have to consider one more thing: The White House would certainly prefer to run against a ticket headed by anyone but Romney, the only Republican who consistently polls ahead of the President anywhere.