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.