[Newt] Gingrich did more than just move the Republican party to the right, as he built power for his congressional allies beginning in the mid-1980s and culminating in his four tumultuous years as Speaker of the House; he brought to the party a “say anything” style of politics that lives on long after his heyday, and that makes it a tactically formidable opposition force. While traditional conservatism had a stern attachment to continuity and an “eat your peas” commitment to principles even when they came at a short-term political cost, Gingrich was untethered, content to propose massive social initiatives—the most famous being to give a laptop computer to every schoolchild, back when laptops cost $5,000—at the same time that he would propose to shut down large government agencies and massively chop government spending. He was able to create a broad appeal by combining his optimistic, techno-visionary liberalism with angry shrink-government conservatism. His secret: He didn’t really mean any of it. He didn’t stick with any initiative long enough to confront the conflicts and contradictions between them.
“Say anything” conservatism allowed the Republicans to initiate a constitutional crisis by impeaching President Clinton and then casually move on as if admitting it was mere political theater; to promise spending cuts and then pass Medicare Part D instead; to denounce any Obama proposal as socialism even if it’s something their own party supported years or even months earlier. It allowed them to simultaneously pass Paul Ryan’s poorly designed proposal to end Medicare and attack Democrats for cutting Medicare.
The daring, improvisational style of the modern Republican Party is in many ways Newt Gingrich’s creation. And his flip-flops, unlike Romney’s nuanced legalisms, are perfectly suited to it. - Mark Schmitt
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