Newt Gingrich has pitched himself as an ideas man his whole career, and now that he's gaining in polls, he suddenly seems smarter than his former top staffers who quit his campaign to work for Rick Perry. Gingrich is "a total idea factory," Rep. Paul Ryan raved to The New York Times in 2009. "The man will have 10 ideas in an hour," Ryan said, noting his constantly buzzing BlackBerry. So 10 ideas an hour multiplied by 2080 working hours a year (let's assume Gingrich takes breaks for meals and sleeping) multiplied 30 years in public life equals 624,000 ideas so far. But the Gingrich idea factory is sort of like H&M -- the merchandise is fast and fashionable, but it doesn't really last. Looking back at his old proposals must be for Gingrich what it's like for the rest of us to flip through an old photo album, cringing at the embarrassing heinous mistakes. For us it's scrunchies, for him it's the death penalty for drug dealers. How many of Gingrich's ideas does he think are truly terrible? These days, he's only admitting to one.
His decision in 2008 to cut an ad with Nancy Pelosi calling for action on climate change was "probably the dumbest single thing I've done in recent years," Gingrich said on Fox News. (He doesn't seem to have doubts in the ad, though: "We don't always see eye to eye, do we Newt?" Pelosi says. "No," Gingrich responds, "but we do agree our country must take action to address climate change.") Now, he says, "I don't know whether global warming is occurring." It's good Gingrich clarified that it was the dumbest thing he's done in recent years. Because he seems to regret a lot of his ideas in the last 20 years.
Mandating people buy health insurance
Back before the individual health care mandate in President Obama's law was the thing that angered Tea Partiers the most, Gingrich was backing it as part of a proposal offered by the Heritage Foundation to compete with Hillarycare. Today, conservatives hate see this as a violation of states rights mandated in the 10th Amendment. As Slate's Dave Weigel reports, Gingrich tried to explain it away by saying the 10th Amendment just wasn't fashionable in the 1990s:
It's nonsense to start a conversation by going back 18 years and playing 'gotcha.' I was explaining the position of conservatives who were trying to defeat HillaryCare. In 1993, you had nothing like the current focus on the 10th amendment. You had nothing like the current desire to get power out of Washington.
In the 1980s -- after he was a congressman! -- Gingrich wrote to the Journal of the American Medical Association to say that legalizing marijuana would be great. He introduced a bill to legalize it in 1981, the Economist explains. But in 1996, he introduced a really different bill -- proposing a life sentence for anyone who brought two ounces of the stuff into the country, and the death penalty for anyone caught doing it twice. Since then, though he still thinks legalizing marijuana would be disastrous, he's backtracked on the whole locking-up-people-forever thing too. In April, Gingrich said we're spending way too much money on prisons. "If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane alternatives — especially alternatives that do not involve spending billions more on more prisons — it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners," he wrote in an April letter with the NAACP.
On March 7, Gingrich had an idea: impose a no-fly zone in Libya for humanitarian reasons. "This is a moment to get rid of [Qaddafi]. Do it." On March 23, Gingrich decided that was a terrible idea: "The standard [Obama] has fallen back to of humanitarian intervention could apply to Sudan, to North Korea, to Zimbabwe, to Syria this week, to Yemen, to Bahrain. This isn't a serious standard. ... I would not have intervened. I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Qaddafi."
When the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case last year, allowing unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns, Gingrich told NPR he was "delighted." (He was so delighted, in fact, that less than a year later he decided to star in a Citizens United movie.) Of course, he had a tweak: "I think I would say that the real campaign finance reform under our Constitution would be to allow anyone to give unlimited amounts of after-tax money, with the understanding that they would file every night on the Internet what they're spending and how they're spending it, so everybody could see who was involved." But in 1995, he had a different idea. Gingrich wanted to clean up the campaign finance system. The Washington Post's David Broder hailed his proposals in a column titled, "Gingrich's Ideas On Campaign Finance Reforms On Target." What were they? Keep limits on individual contributions, but lift them to $5,000. "If this were not heretical enough, the speaker had one other idea," Broder explained. He wanted to limit the strength of political action committees by allowing political parties to spend more money.
And here are some not-so-great ideas Gingrich doesn't really talk about anymore:
- Knowledge requirements for voters: The Washington Examiner reports that this year, Gingrich told the Georgia Republican convention, "But maybe we should also have a voting standard that says to vote, as a native-born American, you should have to learn American history. You realize how many of our high school graduates, because of the decay of the educational system, couldn't pass a citizenship test?" Of course, southern states, one of which he represented in Congress, used such tests to keep black people from voting before the Voting Rights Act. So that idea isn't just stupid, it's illegal.
- How to avoid unemployment when factories go overseas: When Times' Matt Bai spoke to Gingrich in 2009, an interview was interrupted with the politician's shout of "The 1913 Girl Scouts manual!" He phoned his assistant to get him a copy. "He leaned back and proceeded to explain to me that the Girl Scouts manual contained a recommendation that every girl learn to perform two jobs, just in case one of them went away. What we needed, apparently, were more steelworkers who belonged to the Girl Scouts," Bai explains.
- Bring back orphanages: Yes, Gingrich called for bringing back orphanages in 1994. It would save money on welfare. Gingrich has yet to call for orphanages in the Republican debates this year.