Newt a “Reagan conservative”? Not so fast (UPDATED)

Was just on Twitter a few minutes ago and clicked on a link that my co-blogger Phineas Tweeted, which talked about how Newt Gingrich, who has claimed the mantle of “Reagan conservative” perhaps more so than any other GOP presidential contender this election cycle, was in fact not someone who always stood shoulder to shoulder with Ronald Reagan on key issues of the time – especially on Reagan’s signature accomplishment: his brilliant strategy for bringing down the Communist Russian empire.

This may not be a big deal to some of you, but it should be because, as part of the vetting process we’re all engaged in right now, it represents yet another example of a Newt’s near-pathological habit of misrepresenting himself and where he has stood on the issues – and with whom he has stood. For all of his notable accomplishments during the Clinton years, like welfare reform and a balanced budget, there is also a side of Newt that some of us are rediscovering: The shamelessly opportunistic side that sees him saying what he knows conservatives want to hear when it benefits him either politically, professionally … or both, regardless of whether or not it’s the truth. And while it’s accurate to note that most politicians have this unfortunate characteristic in common, Newt Gingrich could patent his ability to persuade skeptics to his side just by the power and conviction of what he says and how he says it. This is unlike Mitt Romney who, while being a serial flip-flopper when it suits him – and who you can see through like a cheaply made suit, wasn’t blessed with the gift of being able to tame the “beast” known as “the base.” (It’s true; Romney’s not winning the conservative base right now – it’s more “moderate” Republicans who have kept him in the race.)

The referenced piece was written by Elliott Abrams, who was an assistant Secretary of State during the Reagan years. Here’s what he had to say:

The claims are misleading at best. As a new member of Congress in the Reagan years — and I was an assistant secretary of state — Mr. Gingrich voted with the president regularly, but equally often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat Communism. Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan’s policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong.

The fights over Reagan’s efforts to stop Soviet expansionism in the Third World were exceptionally bitter. The battlegrounds ranged from Angola and Grenada to Afghanistan and Central America. Reagan’s top team — William Casey at CIA, Cap Weinberger at DOD, and George Shultz at State — understood as he did that if Soviet expansionism could be dealt some tough blows, not only the Soviet empire but the USSR itself would face a political, technological, and financial challenge it could not meet. Few officials besides Ronald Reagan predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union entirely, but every one of us in positions of authority understood the importance of this struggle.

But the most bitter battleground was often in Congress. Here at home, we faced vicious criticism from leading Democrats — Ted Kennedy, Christopher Dodd, Jim Wright, Tip O’Neill, and many more — who used every trick in the book to stop Reagan by denying authorities and funds to these efforts. On whom did we rely up on Capitol Hill? There were many stalwarts: Henry Hyde, elected in 1974; Dick Cheney, elected in 1978, the same year as Gingrich; Dan Burton and Connie Mack, elected in 1982; and Tom DeLay, elected in 1984, were among the leaders.

But not Newt Gingrich. He voted with the caucus, but his words should be remembered, for at the height of the bitter struggle with the Democratic leadership Gingrich chose to attack . . . Reagan.

The best examples come from a famous floor statement Gingrich made on March 21, 1986. This was right in the middle of the fight over funding for the Nicaraguan contras; the money had been cut off by Congress in 1985, though Reagan got $100 million for this cause in 1986. Here is Gingrich: “Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire’s challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail. . . . President Reagan is clearly failing.” Why? This was due partly to “his administration’s weak policies, which are inadequate and will ultimately fail”; partly to CIA, State, and Defense, which “have no strategies to defeat the empire.” But of course “the burden of this failure frankly must be placed first on President Reagan.” Our efforts against the Communists in the Third World were “pathetically incompetent,” so those anti-Communist members of Congress who questioned the $100 million Reagan sought for the Nicaraguan “contra” rebels “are fundamentally right.” Such was Gingrich’s faith in President Reagan that in 1985, he called Reagan’s meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”

Gingrich scorned Reagan’s speeches, which moved a party and then a nation, because “the president of the United States cannot discipline himself to use the correct language.” In Afghanistan, Reagan’s policy was marked by “impotence [and] incompetence.” Thus Gingrich concluded as he surveyed five years of Reagan in power that “we have been losing the struggle with the Soviet empire.” Reagan did not know what he was doing, and “it is precisely at the vision and strategy levels that the Soviet empire today is superior to the free world.”

There are two things to be said about these remarks. The first is that as a visionary, Gingrich does not have a very impressive record. The Soviet Union was beginning to collapse, just as Reagan had believed it must. The expansion of its empire had been thwarted. The policies Gingrich thought so weak and indeed “pathetic” worked, and Ronald Reagan turned out to be a far better student of history and politics than Gingrich.

The second point to make is that Gingrich made these assaults on the Reagan administration just as Democratic attacks were heating up unmercifully. Far from becoming a reliable voice for Reagan policy and the struggle against the Soviets, Gingrich took on Reagan and his administration. It appears to be a habit: He did the same to George W. Bush when Bush was making the toughest and most controversial decision of his presidency — the surge in Iraq. Bush was opposed by many of the top generals, by some Republican leaders who feared the surge would hurt in the 2008 elections, and of course by a slew of Democrats and media commentators. Here again Gingrich provided no support for his party’s embattled president, testifying as a private citizen in 2007 that the strategy was “inadequate,” contained “breathtaking” gaps, lacked “synergism” (whatever that means), and was “very disappointing.” What did Gingrich propose? Among other things, a 50 percent increase in the budget of the State Department.

Now, before anyone says it, let me borrow a phrase from our celebrity President and make something very clear: The issue here isn’t that Newt Gingrich dared to disagree with and criticize Reagan. Far from it – fellow party members are allowed to and should disagree and express those disagreements in public if they find it so necessary (but hopefully they’ll do it without sounding like the opposition, though!). The issue here is Newt’s, to put it charitably, exaggerations when it comes to his “close” relationship with President Reagan. Gingrich d*mn well knows that the base of the Republican party has yearned for years for Reagan-like leadership, especially in the deeply troubling era of Obama/Pelosi/Reid, and he’s taken advantage of that desire by saying what he knows will go over well with staunch conservatives, and he’s hoping that no one will dig into the Wayback Machine to see if his words from then match his rhetoric from today.

On Reagan, it clearly does not.

Unfortunately, this is not just a one-time thing but a pattern of behavior with Newt Gingrich that is worrisome going into the primary season, which is now in full swing. He’s stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Nancy Pelosi and other liberal Democrats (including notorious race-hustler Al Sharpton) when it has suited him professionally. He’s stabbed hard-working GOP Congressmen like Paul Ryan in the back at a time when conservatives in the party could have used his [Newt’s] support. Most recently, his campaign ran a nasty ad in Florida which falsely accused Mitt Romney of being “anti-immigrant.” Haven’t we had enough race-baiting on this issue from the left without having to put up with it from the right, too? And don’t even get me started on Newt’s bizarre attacks against capitalism.

He’s also got some well-known personal failings, such as the issue of him cheating on his first two wives, that I could forgive him for if I felt he was sincere when he says he regrets his behavior – but when you couple that high level of dishonesty with his continued penchant for “cheating on the truth”, the willingness to move beyond the affairs diminishes. As I’ve said many times before: If you can’t be faithful to your spouse, why should I trust you to be faithful to America and the voters who put you in office?

A lot of us have latched onto to Newt Gingrich’s campaign more or less out of desperation; the GOP presidential field – once broad and promising even though flawed – has dwindled, and the thought of Mitt Romney being our nominee scares the hell out of us. Fortunately, not very many of us expect absolute perfection – such a thing doesn’t exist (and if you believe it does, I’m sorry to disappoint you). But the more you learn about Newt Gingrich, the more you realize that he’s not as different from Mitt Romney as he’s made himself out to be. In fact, in some ways Romney is more the “devil we know” than Newt Gingrich is. We know Romney is a moderate to progressive in Republican clothing, no matter what he says to the contrary. Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, can be as conservative as they come one minute, and the very next minute openly sides with Democrats over his own party … and then later hopes everyone forgets about it in the interest of “unity.” Gingrich has become highly unpredictable except when he’s being predictable – in front of conservative audiences whose votes he wants in the primaries.

Just words, just speeches? Yeah, we’ve been down this road before. Recently, in fact.

Both Romney and Gingrich have proven themselves to be profoundly dishonest people when it comes to their political history. At this point, all that’s left for us undecideds to do is to figure out who we distrust the least, who we hope has the best chance of defeating the man whose picture should be right next to the word “dishonest” in the dictionary: President Barack Obama.

The lesser of two evils curse strikes yet again.

Sigh. :-<

Update – 6:35 PM: Several Twitter readers have pointed me to this piece published today by Reagan WH political director Jeffrey Lord, describing Newt as one of Reagan’s “lieutenants.” I read the article in full but it’s failed to persuade me that Newt had the “close” relationship with Reagan he’s claimed to. Again, the deception is clear, regardless of whether or not Newt was willing to work with Reagan some of the time. BTW, this shouldn’t be mistaken as a call for blind loyalty, either. Just that the level of vitriol displayed by Gingrich at the time is a far cry from the loving way he describes Reagan today. A genuine reversal in opinion, political opportunism, or a little of both?

I report – you decide.

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