Sioux City, Iowa

Newt Gingrich has congratulated himself repeatedly for being the only Republican in the presidential primary race to avoid attacks on other candidates from his party. On Thursday morning he twice told reporters from the Des Moines Register that he’d stay positive and called his approach an “experiment” in modern campaigning. In Fort Dodge two hours later, Gingrich declared that negative attacks “will just get people disgusted.”

Voters seem to like this approach. Many early state Republicans I’ve interviewed have raised – without prompting – Gingrich’s declaration that he won’t attack fellow Republicans as something that has drawn them to his candidacy. And unlike other, better funded candidates and Super PACs airing nearly non-stop negative ads on television and radio here, Gingrich has chosen not to use that time honored and effective tactic.

But Gingrich might want to go easy on the sanctimonious self-congratulation. If we measure negativity by degree rather than quantity, he is responsible for the most egregious Republican-on-Republican attack of this cycle.

Last Friday, Gingrich gave a free flowing interview to Coffee and Markets, a smart daily podcast hosted by conservative/libertarian intellectuals, in which he sought to contrast his entitlement reform proposals from Mitt Romney’s. Gingrich criticized Romney’s “total timidity” on Social Security before moving onto Medicare, where he complained that Romney “doesn’t quite tell you what the details” of his proposal are. But rather than just criticize Romney for that lack of detail, Gingrich proceeds with his attack by declaring that he will simply “assume some details.”

Before launching his attack, Gingrich added, mischievously: “I mean, you can go to Romney and ask him if I got it right, and if I didn’t get it right he can tell you what they are, which will be one way to sort of get it out in the open.”

So by “assume some details” Gingrich in effect admitted that he was going to make stuff up. So he did.

“If what he is suggesting a mandatory premium support plan, including people currently on Medicare, he is talking about a politically impossible proposal, which of course he can’t tell you about in detail because if he told you about it in detail AARP and 60-plus and others would end his campaign in about three days.”

Romney has never suggested a plan that would include “people currently on Medicare” – a fact Gingrich surely knew when he assumed that critical detail. Indeed, when Romney announced his entitlement reform proposals at a speech before Americans for Prosperity in Washington last month, he made abundantly clear that his proposals would not affect “current seniors or anyone nearing retirement.” The brief press release from Romney’s campaign that accompanied the speech reaffirmed that important point – four times. “Romney’s proposals would not affect today’s seniors or those nearing retirement” – and – “the Romney plan honors commitments to current seniors” – and – “Nothing changes for current seniors or those nearing retirement” – and, in case it wasn’t clear – “this plan has no effect on current seniors or those nearing retirement.”

Gingrich not only suggests that Romney’s plan would affect current beneficiaries but implies that Romney’s campaign is keeping his scary plans secret – “he can’t tell you about it in detail” – as sort of a January 2013 surprise that he will only reveal after he’s elected.

This is level of demagoguery on the most important domestic policy issue of the day and the issue that Democrats have pledged to make the defining issue of the 2012 election. Only four Republicans in the House and five in the Senate voted against the Medicare reform plan in Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget last spring. That means virtually every incumbent Republican on the ballot next fall is on record voting for a proposal that is more aggressive than Romney’s proposal but, like that one, would not affect current beneficiaries or those nearing retirement. How can Republicans in Congress trust that Gingrich, who has copied Democrats’ demagoguery, will stand by them as they defend themselves against the coming onslaught, especially after Gingrich previously called Ryan’s plan “right-wing social engineering”?

It’s no wonder Paul Ryan chastised Gingrich for his latest attack and reminded him that it’s no longer the 1990s.

So why did Gingrich do this? Perhaps because nearly 15 percent of Iowans are above 65 years old, making it fifth in the nation in the percentage of population above 65. And of course seniors vote at a much higher rate than other segments of the population. Throw in those “near retirement” and you’ve got a huge and influential segment of those likely to attend the caucuses here on January 3.

That last paragraph might be unfair. It’s never good to assume some details.

Next Page