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Newt Gingrich's surprisingly tired ideas for the GOP platform

April 09, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich acknowledged Sunday on Fox News that he's unlikely to beat Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich acknowledged Sunday on Fox News that… (AP Photo / Haraz N. Ghanbari )

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will still be on GOP ballots and will continue to ask Republicans for campaign donations, but even Gingrich now appears to concede what has been obvious for weeks: He’s no longer a viable candidate.

On Fox News Sunday, Gingrich talked about his campaign in the past tense, saying, “It turned out to be much harder than I thought it would, but it was [the] right thing for me to do. I have no regrets.” And he conceded that Mitt Romney was “far and away, the most likely Republican nominee.”

Nevertheless, Gingrich continues to hope that his ideas will find their way into not just the party platform – after all, who reads that? – but also into the GOP’s orthodoxy over the long run. He cited four in particular: energy independence, personal Social Security accounts a la Chile, religious liberty and debt repayment.

Here’s hoping he comes up with a better list before he officially drops out of the race, because those are four surprisingly stale ideas.

Gingrich said his “American independence energy policy” is “aimed at making sure no future president ever bows to a Saudi king and making sure that we bring several million jobs home by producing probably 4 million barrels a day more oil here at the United States.” Well, yeah, that’s been the goal at least since President Carter. The problem, as Lisa Margonelli notes in the Atlantic, is that “the U.S. has 3% of the worlds' oil reserves, and we use 24% of world's production with just 4% to 5% of the population.”

In other words, it looks like Americans have an issue not just with production, but also consumption. Given that it takes about a decade for a newly leased area to start producing barrels of crude, a president won’t make much of a difference in U.S. energy supplies in the short term by opening more lands for drilling. A more promising route toward energy independence in the near term is by boosting conservation and energy efficiency. Of course,  there’s been a lot of progress on that front already. Quoting Margonelli again: “Since 1973, the U.S. has met 75% of our new energy needs through energy efficiency, a profound change in economic productivity that has saved us money, pollution, and avoided environmental and political risk.”

The notion of privatizing Social Security has been around even longer. It was revived most recently by President George W. Bush, who proposed in 2005 to let workers divert some of their payroll-tax payments into private accounts. Gingrich favors the approach Chile took in 1980, when the Pinochet regime gave workers the option of investing in private accounts instead of the public pension system.

Said Gingrich: “Back in 1993, the last time we tried to fix Social Security, if we had adopted a Chilean model, where people have a personal account, there would be $16 trillion in savings by today. That's how much the buildup would have been just based on what's happening in Chile, which is not a theory. It's actually happening.”

He neglected to mention that shifting to private accounts is enormously expensive. Social Security, like Chile’s previous pension system, relies on payroll tax payments from today’s workers to help cover the cost of benefits paid to today’s retirees. If payments from workers are diverted into personal accounts, that leaves a shortfall in the funds needed to pay benefits, and the government has to cover it.

Chile prepared for the shift by building up a budget surplus, and it has still had to borrow a sizable amount to cover the shortfall in revenue in the public pension system. The U.S. government, by contrast, has been running enormous deficits and will have to increase the public debt by trillions just to pay the Social Security benefits owed baby boomers. So shifting to the “Chilean model” is a lot easier said than done.

Gingrich’s point on religious liberty is simple: “The government should not force its values on any religious institution.” But he probably doesn’t intend it to be as grand an idea as it sounds. The government’s values include not discriminating against people on the basis of their race, and there’s no carve-out for church-affiliated hospitals to deny care to blacks or Asians. It’s doubtful that Gingrich would want to give religious institutions carte blanche to ignore U.S. law. Instead, he seems focused on the requirement that employers affiliated with religious institutions include contraceptive coverage in their employee health insurance policies, although the cost would have to be covered by the insurer.

Finally, Gingrich called for “all of the revenue from this new expanded energy [drilling] go into a debt repayment fund.” In other words, the additional taxes collected from new wells would be used to pay down debt rather than help balance the budget. That sounds suspiciously like the “lock box” Al Gore proposed in the 2000 campaign to save payroll tax revenue for future retiree benefits.

Coming from the guy who proselytized about moon colonies and virtual schools, and whose unconventional thinking helped Republicans seize control of the House after a 46-year power drought, Gingrich’s suggestions on Fox News were just too pedestrian. Come on, Newt – dazzle us one last time before you head for the exit.

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COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

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