GOP Abandons Gingrich: Today's Outrage

WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- With unemployment still hovering around 9%, job creation stagnating, the national debt climbing and budget spending in question, the Republicans sure could use someone with experience dealing with such things to spearhead the 2012 campaign.

Too bad they just laughed him out the door.

As speaker of the House during the Clinton administration, Newt Gingrich had successes that seem to elude the current crop of elected Republican politicians.

Less than a month after House Speaker Newt Gingrich took to his Twitter account May 11 and linked to a YouTube announcement of his 2012 presidential candidacy, much of his campaign has deserted him, and the GOP base and punditry has openly mocked him. He's been scolded by potential voters, glitter-bombed by critics and forced into exile in the Greek islands on "vacation" this week. Why? Because he had the temerity to question the Path to Prosperity budget plan put forth by Wisconsin Republican Congressman and conservative crush of the moment Paul Ryan on Meet The Press less than a week after announcing his run.

When asked by David Gregory if the Republicans should embrace Ryan's plan to overhaul and privatize Medicare, Gingrich answered:

"I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate."

This and Gingrich's Looney Tunes-style midair backpedaling afterward infuriated Republicans and their mouthpieces to no end, but that backpedaling wouldn't have been necessary if the GOP retained any of the moderation Gingrich believed it had. You'll have to pardon his delusions, as he remembers a time parties had to drift to the center every so often and work together to get things done.

His current GOP contemporaries may see that as weakness and appeasement of the enemy. They took control of the House without a Contract With America that would burden the newly elected cost cutters with a tangible plan, but they've yet to reap the tangible economic, employment and political benefits Gingrich gained for Americans through these actions alone:

1. Welfare reform
This was back when vetoes weren't the end of the world, but a negotiating tactic. President Bill Clinton nixed two previous reform efforts, but in 1996 Gingrich worked with Clinton face-to-face on the third version that replaced the open-ended Aid To Families With Dependent Children program with the more conditional Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, enforced recipient work requirements, tightened food stamp eligibility standards, reduced immigrant programs, limited federal responsibility and increased states' control of welfare programs. Even after the "Republican Revolution" that took the House in 1994, pushing this kind of program through and getting a Democratic administration to sign off on it is no less impressive.

2. A balanced budget
While the newly elected members of the House look down every time someone says "government shutdown" to see if any of their party's tea has leaked into their laps, Gingrich remembers shutting down the whole works with gusto in 1995 and 1996 when the Republicans' plan to cut spending conflicted with Clinton's plans to fund Medicare, education, public health programs and environmental initiatives. When the budget question came up again in 1997, Clinton and Gingrich's Congress actually got together, talked it out and agreed on $150 billion in Republican-sponsored tax cuts over five years and a restructuring of Medicare to save another $115 billion -- while still funding welfare-to-work programs and health care for poor children. It would be the first of four consecutive balanced budgets and it would help the nation add nearly 8.4 million jobs by 1999, drop the unemployment rate from 5.6% to 4.2% and slow the growth of year-over-year government spending to 2.9%. It also led to an acknowledgement by Gingrich that a country divided enough to re-elect Gingrich and company into office and re-elect Clinton in the same year made it possible. "It was their political will that brought the two parties together," he said at the time. Imagine that.

3. Cutting the capital gains tax
What, you thought tax cuts for big spenders were something new? The difference from Ryan's proposals is that Gingrich was actually able to make it happen: Ratcheting up the tax exemptions on the sale of a personal residence and requiring the seller to live there for only two of the past five years. For folks who inherited vast tracts of land and wanted to unload them, this was a godsend. It was also a compromise that neither Clinton nor Gingrich's Republican pals liked, which meant it was likely the best solution on the table.

4. Addressing political accountability
It's funny how there was so much talk about the "fat cats in Washington" leading up to the 2010 midterms, but not so much about slimming down those cats afterward. Gingrich's crew romped in the elections in 1994 and had the Congressional Accountability Act -- a pillar of the Contract With America -- signed into law by January 1995. If you think Congress is detached now, you should have seen it when neither the Civil Rights Act of 1964 nor the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 applied to them. This didn't mean the Gingrich House was always great at self-policing; it tore up a piece of the Contract by striking down 12-year term limits for House members, but it took its position on government accountability far more seriously than its contemporaries.

Ryan, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul and Sarah Palin can't claim anything resembling these resume items.

Gingrich made all this happen with the help of a president he outwardly loathed. The president he worked with was the same president he'd try to oust from office during the end of his days as House speaker. Yet Gingrich and Clinton helped dig the nation out of a recession and kept it on steady footing for years.

Ryan wouldn't know much about this, as he was on his way into Congress just as Gingrich was leaving in 1998. By then, the well had already been poisoned, Clinton was heading toward impeachment and the nation's two-party system was well on its way to Bush v. Gore. Ryan and other members of the GOP presidential field and the party's chattering peanut gallery of hangers-on entered an era of winner-take-all politics that first polarized the nation and, later, political representatives who want nothing to do with the compromise and negotiation of generations past.

Even when they stumble into an opportunity to echo Gingrich's achievements, they haven't done a damned thing. Ryan's budget proposal is still in the draft stage and isn't anything the Democratic Senate will vote in or President Barack Obama will sign any time soon. The current GOP field is longer on rhetoric and screen time than it is on legislative accomplishments or actual cost cuts. By this time in the Gingrich House's first session, it had passed many of the core elements of the Contract With America, including legislation for job creation, $500-per-child tax credits, repeal of the marriage tax penalty and the skeletal workings of a balanced budget amendment.

Then again, the GOP loves punishing Gingrich for getting things done. In 1997, as now, the GOP felt Gingrich's public image and his proclivity toward working with the Clinton White House were a liability and tried to oust him. That ill-conceived coup, led by current House Speaker John Boehner, failed miserably and a dispirited Gingrich left of his own volition a year later. Gingrich hasn't quit on his 2012 presidential run yet, but the Republicans scoffing at him now in favor of more media-friendly flashes in the pan would be served to consider the words Gingrich had for the GOP after leaving office in 1998:

"I'm willing to lead but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals."

No wonder he believed nothing had changed.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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