Gingrich Falters Out Of Presidential Starting Gate

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has called House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's Medicare plan "radical" and "right wing social-engineering." Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor for National Review magazine, talks to Steve Inskeep about Gingrich's comments.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich began his presidential campaign on the defensive. In one of his first TV interviews after announcing his candidacy, Gingrich criticized the budget plan of a fellow Republican - Paul Ryan in the House of Representative. Gingrich called the plan radical and right wing social-engineering, which prompted many prominent Republicans to strike back. Gingrich has since apologized.

Let's talk about the run of the former House speaker with Ramesh Ponnuru of the conservative magazine, National Review.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. RAMESH PONNURU (National Review): Hi.

INSKEEP: What made this remark out of bounds for Republicans?

Mr. PONNURU: Well, you know, having a prominent Republican attack a budget that all but four of the House Republicans voted for is obviously politically damaging, you know. House Republicans are keenly aware that the vote was a politically difficult one to begin with, and they felt that they were suddenly coming under friendly fire from the speaker.

INSKEEP: Oh, so they're basically saying...

Mr. PONNURU: Former speaker.

INSKEEP: They're basically saying we went out on a limb here, why are you coming after us. That's what they're saying.

Mr. PONNURU: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Although there was - granted that many people disagreed, there was really widespread criticism even outside of the House of Representative. I'm thinking of Brett Hume of Fox News, reading rather fierce commentary on the air. Quite a few people. I wonder, is there a broader expression of unease, here, with Newt Gingrich running at all?

Mr. PONNURU: Well, you know, I think that it has taken Gingrich very little time in his presidential run to remind people why he acquired such a negative reputation in the mid 1990s.

And you saw in this episode, where he attacks the Ryan budget and then walked back his criticism, the same pattern of overstatement and erratic behavior that he's displayed, really, all through is career.

INSKEEP: Where does that come from?

Mr. PONNURU: Well, you know, there is some need, apparently, on Gingrich's part, even when he's taking a politically expedient position, to sort of come up with some rationalization for it that casts him in some kind of world, historical, heroic terms.

So, for example, when he recently decided to come out for ethanol subsidies in order to appeal to Iowa voters, he decided not only was this the correct thing to do, but that those who oppose it just do so because they have something against the good rural folk of Iowa and they're all a bunch of city slickers. You know, a normal politician who just panders, understands what he's doing and doesn't make more of it than he has to.

But Gingrich can't do that. And in this case he can't just say, oh, that's the politics, (unintelligible) are tricky. I'm a little nervous about it. He has to say that the Ryan budget is radical.

INSKEEP: You know, I wonder if this is reflective of broader unease with Republicans throughout their presidential field. I mean, I flipped to the Daily Beast, which I read, and there's a former speech writer of President Bush ripping Mitt Romney, another of the more prominent candidates. It seems like Republican excitement is mostly limited to people who are not running.

Mr. PONNURU: Well, you know, I think you're right about that. But this is the period in the pre-primary season where everybody who is actually offering himself isn't perfect. And that's what people are focusing on. And the people who aren't running seem perfect because they're not running.

And none of these guys, you know, look, they're all - there're a bunch of them. Some of them are more fringy than others. They're all sort of on the same debate platform and they all sort of look equal, and thus not particular impressive. And I think that's going to remain the case until you actually have some votes and some people start winning.

INSKEEP: We've just got about...

Mr. PONNURU: That will happen and then people'll look different.

INSKEEP: We've just got about 20 seconds here, but do you think there is a Republican running who could look like he has the stature to win this thing a year from now?

Mr. PONNURU: Look, anybody who gets the nomination all of a sudden looks like they have a lot more stature. I'm not particularly worried about the strength of this field.

INSKEEP: Mr. Ponnuru, a pleasure speaking with you.

Mr. PONNURU: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Ramesh Ponnuru is senior editor of the National Review.

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