Yesterday Newt Gingrich apologized to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for calling his Medicare reform plan a "radical change" that amounts to "right-wing social engineering" on national television. "I made a mistake," Gingrich told Fox News last night. "I support what he's trying to do in the budget." And what was the nature of this mistake? "Newt had an inartful phrase in answer to a specific question," says Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler. "I used language that was too strong," Gingrich says. Now he has gone from overstatement to understatement. Here is the full exchange with Meet the Press host David Gregory, which shows that Gingrich's condemnation of the Ryan plan was no mere slip of the tongue:
Gregory: Do you think that Republicans ought to buck the public opposition and really move forward to completely change Medicare, turn it into a voucher program where you give seniors some premium support and—so that they can go out and buy private insurance?
Gingrich: 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. I think we need a national conversation to get to a better Medicare system with more choices for seniors. But there are specific things you can do. [Several sentences about rooting out Medicare fraud.]
Gregory: But not what Paul Ryan is suggesting, which is completely changing Medicare.
Gingrich: I think that that is too big a jump. I think what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options, not one where you suddenly impose upon the—I don't want to—I'm against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.
His mind on the presidential race, Gingrich deliberately creates the impression that, unlike that wild-eyed radical Paul Ryan (and the 235 Republican congressmen who voted for his plan), he is against "completely changing Medicare." Yet despite all the talk about the "evolution" of Gingrich's views since he was speaker of the House, his position now is essentially the same as it was in 1995, when he said:
Now let me talk a little bit about Medicare. Let me start at the vision level so you understand how radically different we are and why it's so hard for the press corps to cover us….
What we're trying to do, first of all, is say, OK, here is a government monopoly plan. We're designing a free-market plan. Now, they're very different models. You know, we tell Boris Yeltsin, "Get rid of centralized command bureaucracies. Go to the marketplace."
OK, what do you think the Health Care Financing Administration is? It's a centralized command bureaucracy. It's everything we're telling Boris Yeltsin to get rid of. Now, we don't get rid of it in round one because we don't think that that's politically smart, and we don't think that's the right way to go through a transition. But we believe it's going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it.
As Gingrich now concedes, he and Ryan are basically on the same page. The main difference between them is that Gingrich wants to offer retirees a Medicare-like option along with a choice of private insurance plans. Ryan is open to that idea, although he notes that the government-provided coverage can't be as generous as it is now, since that would defeat the attempt to control costs by creating a competitive system in which consumers make decisions based on price. So Gingrich could have responded to Gregory's question by saying 1) Ryan is absolutely correct that Medicare is unsustainable in its current form, 2) his plan moves in the right direction, but 3) I disagree with some of the details. Instead he dodged the ugly fiscal reality by talking about fighting fraud, thereby implying that reform will be painless, and trashed Ryan's plan in terms precisely as strong as he used to bash ObamaCare. The problem is not just that Gingrich "is drawn irresistibly to operatic overstatement," as Rich Lowry says; it's that he's a weasel who is trying to have it both ways, getting credit for saving Medicare without riling anybody who likes the status quo.
Bonus quote from the Fox News interview: "Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood, because I have said publicly those words were inaccurate and unfortunate."