This was not a momentary slip by Gingrich, a panicked brag in response to an unexpected question. Gingrich constantly boasts about his interest in ideas. “I am very different from normal politicians,” he said early in the race. “We” — the royal we, in this case — “have big ideas.”
It’s not just Gingrich who thinks this about Gingrich, though. Most everyone else does, too. “Within the politico-journalistic combine,” wrote Andrew Ferguson in the New York Times, “Gingrich’s status as an intellectual is accepted as an article of faith.” This paper called him “a one-man think tank.” Sen. Tom Coburn said he is “undoubtedly the smartest man I’ve ever met.”
Gingrich’s flaws, of course, are also widely acknowledged. But his faith in, and facility with, ideas is supposed to be his great redeeming characteristic. Sure, the guy might be a flip-flopping cad who speaks most eloquently to voters’ resentments and bashes Washington elites while living in McLean, Va., and making millions consulting for Freddie Mac, but at least he loves ideas!
It’s not at all clear why we should care if our presidents are idea-obsessed. The idea that cancer is triggered, at least in part, by common viruses is very interesting, but I wouldn’t want the leader of the free world to spend too much time worrying about it. Same with the idea that William Shakespeare was a pen name for Sir Francis Bacon. Just as having a lot of pens doesn’t make you a great writer, having a lot of ideas doesn’t make you a great thinker. It is quality, not quantity, that should concern us. And the quality of Gingrich’s ideas is often concerning.
Take his tax policy. Gingrich has proposed a tax cut that is larger, by a wide margin, than anything proposed by any other Republican. As ideas go, it’s big. But when you start running the numbers — when you look at it as a policy rather than an idea — its third dimension comes quickly into view: It’s a disaster.
Gingrich’s plan would permanently extend the George W. Bush tax cuts. But it would also create a parallel tax system that anyone could opt into. This system would impose a 15 percent flat tax. Capital gains, dividends and interest income would be tax-free (so Mitt Romney would, in theory, pay a tax rate near zero). The corporate tax rate would be cut from 35 percent to 12.5 percent. All in all, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that Gingrich’s plan would mean a $289 tax cut for earners in the bottom 20 percent and a $422,000 tax cut for earners in the top 1 percent.
All these tax cuts come at a cost. In 2015, the Tax Policy Center says, Gingrich’s plan would reduce federal revenue by $1.3 trillion. That means, over the next 10 years, Gingrich’s plan would increase the deficit by well over $15 trillion. To balance the budget, you would need to cut government spending by about a third. To put that in perspective, defense spending accounts for about 20 percent of the federal budget. So you could cut every dollar spent on defense and you still wouldn’t have paid for Gingrich’s tax cuts.
Perhaps, however, Gingrich has a big idea for how to pay for them. His campaign Web site promises that President Gingrich would “balance the budget by growing the economy, controlling spending, implementing money saving reforms, and replacing destructive policies and regulatory agencies with new approaches.” That’s not an idea, much less a policy. That’s pablum.
So at the core of Gingrich’s campaign is the most regressive, fiscally irresponsible tax cut proposed by any Republican candidate. And yet he gets to wander around telling people how much more intellectual and substantive he is than his competitors.
Another idea on Gingrich’s Web site would radically upend the role of the judicial system. Gingrich argues that the prevailing view that the Supreme Court is the final word on constitutionality is wrong, and that Congress and the executive branch should begin ignoring the Supreme Court’s rulings when they disagree with them.
As an example, Gingrich imagines Americans “ask that Congress pass a law insisting on the centrality of ‘our Creator’ in defining American rights, the legitimacy of appeals to God ‘in public places,’ and the absolute rejection of judicial supremacy as a violation of the Constitution’s balance of powers.” When the Supreme Court objects, he says, Congress should pass, and the president should sign, a second law affirming their power “to define the court’s jurisdiction.”
The law could also “include a specific provision that barred the lower federal courts from reviewing it.” And if any lower courts disobeyed? Those federal judges “would be subject to impeachment and removal from office.”
Overruling the Supreme Court and impeaching any judges who refuse to hew to President Gingrich’s interpretation of the proper relationship between church and state is, again, a big idea. But good policy in a deeply divided polity? Probably not.
Continuing with the theme of politicizing America’s least-political institutions, during his victory speech in South Carolina, Gingrich said that “on the issue of money and the Federal Reserve,” Ron Paul “has been right for 25 years.” Paul, of course, believes we should “end the Fed” and return to a gold-backed currency. Gingrich, apparently, agrees with him. Economists don’t. The University of Chicago recently asked 40 prominent economists whether a gold standard would be “better for the average American.” Every one said no. “Why tie to gold?” asked Chicago’s Richard Thaler. “Why not 1982 Bordeaux?”
And these are just Gingrich’s campaign ideas. That is to say, these are the ideas that Gingrich considered most likely to get him elected. In the past, Gingrich’s policy thinking has been both wackier and more sinister. In 1996, he wrote legislation prescribing the death penalty for anyone who brings more than two ounces of marijuana into the country. In 1984, he suggested that “a mirror system in space could provide the light equivalent of many full moons so that there would be no need for nighttime lighting of the highways.” In 2009, he proposed blasting North Korea’s nuclear arsenal with a laser.
Ideas like these led to one of the more amusing Web sites of the campaign — “Supervillain or Newt?” — which asks you to guess whether a given idea came from Gingrich or a fictional supervillain. I got eight out of 10 right, but then I read a lot of comic books growing up.
When Gingrich was speaker of the House, Bob Dole was the Senate majority leader. And so Dole spent a lot of time listening to the speaker’s proposals. “Gingrich’s staff has these five file cabinets, four big ones and this little tiny one,” he told the New York Times. “Number one is ‘Newt’s ideas.’ Number two, ‘Newt’s ideas.’ Number three, number four, ‘Newt’s ideas.’ The little one is ‘Newt’s Good Ideas.’ ”
Which clarifies matters considerably. Being interested in ideas might be a virtue. Being interested mainly in bad ideas isn’t. And too often, bad ideas seem to catch Gingrich’s fancy.
For more columns by Ezra Klein, go to postbusiness.com.