Dana Milbank
Opinion writer May 17, 2011

Back during the Revolution of ’94, Newt Gingrich and his pollster came up with a list of words for GOP candidates to use to undermine support for Democrats, including instructions to call members of the opposition “radical” and to claim they wish to “impose” their will.

So it was with a mixture of nostalgia and intrigue that I watched Gingrich use these very words on “Meet the Press” on Sunday — against his fellow Republicans.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate,” he told David Gregory, criticizing the House Republicans’ plan to replace Medicare with a voucher system. Moments later, he added, “I’m against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.”

It was vintage Gingrich — impulsive and undisciplined — and it pretty much wrecked his just-launched presidential campaign. House Republicans howled, Rush Limbaugh said “there is no explanation,” and the Wall Street Journal editorialized that Gingrich was “suddenly triangulating against the GOP House he once led.”

But Gingrich was taking basically the same position on Medicare he took 16 years ago, when, as speaker of the House, he was the commanding general of the Republican Revolution. What has changed since then is not Gingrich but the Republican Party — and the approach to Medicare is a prime example.

Compared to today’s Republican agenda, the Revolution of ’94 now appears to be a halcyon period of moderation and good sense. Then, there was a hope that government-run Medicare would “wither on the vine” when recipients were offered alternatives. Now the plan is to pull the whole thing up by the roots.

In his infamous Medicare remarks of 1995, Gingrich voiced hope that the “centralized command bureaucracy” of Medicare would “wither on the vine because we think people are going to voluntarily leave it. Voluntarily.”

That’s almost exactly what he told Gregory on Sunday when he said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to force people off fee-for-service Medicare is “too big a jump. I think what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes.”

Ryan, stung by Gingrich’s critique of his “radical” plan, went on Laura Ingraham’s radio show and joked: “With allies like that, who needs the left?”

Actually, you do, congressman. Whatever you think of Gingrich, his political analysis on this point is shrewd. He has learned, over time and at great cost, that important policy will fail if it is forced on one side by the other. Even if legislation passes, such as last year’s health-care reform, public support will be badly weakened if opinion makers on both sides don’t provide validation. Republicans understood this when they criticized Democrats for overreaching, yet now they are attempting precisely the same thing with Ryan’s budget.

Gingrich, for all his petulance and partisanship, ultimately became a dealmaker, building consensus for the 1997 balanced-budget agreement. As a private citizen, he has continued to search for common ground on health-care reform. “I’ve spent enough of my life fighting,” he said during a joint appearance with Hillary Clinton in 2005. “It would be nice to spend some time constructing.”

Ryan came from a similar mind-set. He worked with Alice Rivlin, who had been Bill Clinton’s budget director, to develop a Medicare reform plan that created private alternatives but left fee-for-service Medicare as the default option. Though he was a dissenting vote on the Erskine Bowles-Alan Simpson debt commission, Ryan praised the group’s approach of mixing spending cuts and tax increases. Democrats who met privately with him had hopes that the incoming budget committee chairman would forge a consensus.

In December, Ryan praised Democrats Bowles and Rivlin as “wonderful human beings” and said: “I hope there are more people like that, that can form a coalition in this country to fix these problems.”

But once in power, he tossed aside the Bowles-Simpson approach in favor of a plan that includes only spending cuts with no increase in tax revenue. And he abandoned his partner Rivlin, proposing a Medicare reform that has a lower Medicare growth rate than they had agreed on, and one that doesn’t maintain fee-for-service Medicare as an option.

Thus did Ryan trade the approval of Rivlin for the affection of Limbaugh. In the process, he busted up the emerging consensus to solve the problems he claims to care about. Even by the revolutionary standards of ’94, that’s just radical.

danamilbank@washpost.com