Ryan, Gingrich and GOP Medicare Trap

Newt Gingrich is not the only Republican in a difficult spot over House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s Medicare-slashing budget. As election results in New York’s 26th Congressional District have confirmed, the whole GOP is.

Gingrich’s travails began when he called the Ryan plan a piece of "right-wing social engineering." True, under fire the former House speaker apologized to his "close friend" Ryan. And, yes, he did laughably make the case that quoting him accurately would constitute a gross ethical violation. “I want to make sure every House Republican is protected from some kind of dishonest Democratic ad," Gingrich said. "So let me say on the record, any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood."

Most important is what Gingrich didn’t do in all his to and fro since the firestorm began: take back what he had said about Ryan’s plan. Gingrich still hasn’t given a full-throated endorsement of the Ryan plan. In fact, he told radio host William Bennett, "I just said I am for the process of improving it. I didn’t say I was for the plan as it currently exists. I think that is an important distinction."

In voting to transform Medicare into a private insurance system in which seniors over time would be responsible for an increasingly large share of their health-care expenses, House Republicans exempted those 55 and older. Gingrich sees what his party, in its hubris, could not: This sleight of hand isn’t going to protect them from the wrath of oldsters at the ballot box. The GOP didn’t count on these presumably greedy geezers caring about the next generation as much as their next cholesterol test. But those currently benefiting from Medicare fully understand what it will be like for their children to enter the ruthless private insurance market armed with a tattered voucher and a bundle of pre-existing conditions.

Dangerous Embrace

To understand just how dangerous the GOP’s embrace of the Ryan plan may be in 2012, consider yesterday’s special election in upstate New York to replace former Representative Chris Lee, who resigned in February after advertising himself shirtless among the used futons on Craigslist. Special elections are notoriously idiosyncratic. This one, complicated by a third-party candidate, has no effect on the balance of power in Washington. Still, the fact that this solidly Republican district was won by a Democrats by 48 percent to 43 percent should have Republicans concerned -- and does.

In 2010, Lee won this Republican stronghold with 73 percent of the vote. This time around, Democrat Kathy Hochul won the race by attacking Republican candidate Jane Corwin’s support for the Ryan plan. A pre-election poll showed that about a fifth of voters in the district consider Medicare the top issue. Among that group, Hochul was taking almost 80 percent of the vote. The more Hochul hammered Corwin’s support for the Ryan plan -- unions launched their own ad featuring a Medicare card being torched -- the higher Hochul rose. By the election’s eve, she had surpassed Corwin in two public polls and never looked back.

Senators Oppose Plan

All of which explains Gingrich’s fudging. It also raises an interesting question. Will other Republicans join Gingrich in throwing Ryan under the bus or will they throw Gingrich beneath the wheels instead? Three Republican senators -- Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts -- have already announced they will either oppose the Ryan plan (Brown and Collins) or have serious reservations about it (Murkowski). Running for re-election in a blue state, Brown explained his opposition in, writing that it would be a mistake to "change Medicare as we know it."

As he runs for president, Gingrich has no desire to become a pariah in his party, though Republican strategists now expect an onslaught of Democratic ads making the case that, yes, even Newt Gingrich says the Ryan plan is extreme. (Thanks for nothing, Newt.) Several of his erstwhile allies, including columnist Charles Krauthammer and radio host Rush Limbaugh, have made known their displeasure with his remarks on RyanCare.

Gingrich’s Weaknesses

Gingrich’s gaffe reminds his party of his elephantine weaknesses: intellectual vanity, self-love, an insatiable appetite for melodrama and a constant yearning to place himself at the center of history. As a congressman, Gingrich led Republicans to the promised land, overthrowing a Democratic Party that had ruled the House for most of the previous six decades. He also shut down the government out of pique, ran afoul of ethics laws, and pursued an affair with a House staff member even as he was denouncing -- and impeaching -- President Bill Clinton for similar sexual misconduct. For this aging Lothario, now on his third wife, long walks on the beach don’t suffice; Gingrich racked up as much as $500,000 in debt to Tiffany’s. Campaigning in Iowa last week, Gingrich was confronted by an angry Iowan who demanded that he get out of the race before he makes a bigger fool of himself.

Taking the Heat

Yet Gingrich also attracted crowds in his first week of campaigning, and despite all his vulnerabilities, he clearly prefers to take heat for his apostasy rather than wed his fortunes to RyanCare. He may be onto something. As a self-styled man of destiny, Gingrich knows One Big Thing: An unwillingness to endorse the House Republicans’ plan in the GOP primaries will cause him plenty of trouble. But a candidate who embraces RyanCare’s deep Medicare cuts may find the GOP nomination isn’t worth much in a general election. Old people love their Medicare. And as Republicans have discovered in upstate New York, it looks as if they’re pretty fond of the next generation, too.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Editor: Francis Wilkinson

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