“Any [Democratic] ad which quotes what I said Sunday is a falsehood and because I have said publicly, those words were inaccurate and unfortunate.”
— Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), May 17, 2011
After denouncing the House Republican budget plan for Medicare as “right-wing social engineering” and “radical change” on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) found himself on the defensive and his nascent presidential bid in shambles.
Within two days, he popped up on Fox’s “On the Record” to explain to host Greta van Susteren that he had apologized to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the main author of the plan.
Ryan, in a radio interview, confirmed that. “Basically, he called and apologized. And I accepted his apology,” Ryan told Mark Levin. “I think he understands that this is an inaccurate characterization, I think he just misspoke.”
But does Gingrich really believe that? In the Fox appearance and in other venues, Gingrich never really took back the words he had said about the Ryan plan. Even as he appeared to apologize, he bolstered the idea that he had significant problems with Ryan’s plan.
Speaking to van Susteren, Gingrich said he made the “mistake” of answering a “hypothetical question” and a mistake with “some of the words I used.” But then he added: “But I was trying to say something that's really important.”
We acknowledge this issue does not easily fit the definition of a “fact” that can be checked, but it is an excellent example of how a politician can give a potentially misleading impression though words and body language. So let’s roll the videotape.
“Meet the Press” host David Gregory asked Gingrich a simple question: “Do you think that Republicans ought to buck the public opposition and really move forward to completely change Medicare, turn it into a voucher program where you give seniors some premium support and — so that they can go out and buy private insurance?”
Here are the guts of Gingrich’s answer:
I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate. I think we need a national conversation to get to a better Medicare system with more choices for seniors. …[The Ryan plan] is too big a jump. I think what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options, not one where you suddenly impose upon the — I don't want to — I'm against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.
The real question is not whether Gingrich thinks he made a mistake. Clearly he thinks he made a political mistake, or else he would not be dialing Ryan to grovel.
The question that he has not answered is: Do you still believe the Ryan plan is “radical” or “right-wing social engineering”?
In a conversation with bloggers Tuesday, for instance, Gingrich persisted in calling the plan radical: “Part of what I'm worried about is compelling people to go through a radical change that has not been tested.”
In another conversation Tuesday, this time with radio host William Bennett, Gingrich listed a long series of caveats before saying he could support the Ryan plan: “To the degree we are in the middle of a national conversation and the plan is open to change and our goal is to move forward to modify and improve the plan, as opposed to sell it or pass it, I am for it.”
Yet, at another point, he emphasized to Bennett that he was not for the plan: “I am for the process of improving it. I did not say I was for the plan as it currently exists. I think that is an important distinction.”
For her part, Susteren tried to press Gingrich for some kind of explanation: “What don't you agree with within the Ryan bill?”
But she did not really get an answer.
“The country has to look at it. The country has to ask questions about it,” Gingrich replied, before diverting into gobbledygook about the need for choices and saving $70 to $120 billion from fraud and abuse. (Gingrich often uses these figures but they are vastly overstated, as Factcheck.org has pointed out.)
The closest Gingrich came to saying he was wrong was this statement: “Any ad which quotes what I said Sunday is a falsehood and because I have said publicly, those words were inaccurate and unfortunate.” But as far as we can tell, he did not provide an “accurate” description of what he thinks about the Ryan plan.
We did not get a reply from Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler when we asked whether Gingrich still believed the plan was radical.
The Pinocchio Test
Politicians often have trouble admitting they made a mistake, but Gingrich appears to be trying to have his cake and eat it, too. He says he made a mistake and used “inaccurate and unfortunate” words, but then he dodges questions about what he really thinks about the Ryan plan.
If the plan is radical, why?
If it is not radical, why does he oppose it?
Gingrich’s dancing around these questions thus far fits the definition of two Pinocchios — “a false, misleading impression by playing with words.” He uses words to give the appearance of apologizing, without actually doing so.