Nate Silver noted the other day that Newt Gingrich, far more than any other candidate, has tried to wear Ronald Reagan like the alien did Edgar in Men in Black. He’s done everything but show up in a brown corduroy suit and cowboy boots.
In Monday night’s debate in Tampa, Fla., Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, mentioned Ronald Reagan just four words into his first answer of the night. It was the first of five times that Mr. Gingrich would mention Reagan; no other candidate did so even once.
This was not, it turns out, an isolated example. Mr. Gingrich uses Reagan’s name early and often, and in almost every debate.
Over the course of the 17 debates that he has participated in during this cycle, Mr. Gingrich has used the term “Reagan” 55 times, according to debate transcripts. By comparison, the nine other Republican candidates who have participated in the debates mentioned Reagan just 51 times combined. (Rick Santorum is a distant second to Mr. Gingrich with 14 mentions.)
But the infamous Elliot Abrams, an assistant secretary of state during the Reagan administration and Newt’s fellow neo-con, says that he insulted Reagan constantly during the 80s.
As a new member of Congress in the Reagan years — and I was an assistant secretary of state — Mr. Gingrich voted with the president regularly, but equally often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat Communism. Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan’s policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong…
But not Newt Gingrich. He voted with the caucus, but his words should be remembered, for at the height of the bitter struggle with the Democratic leadership Gingrich chose to attack . . . Reagan.
The best examples come from a famous floor statement Gingrich made on March 21, 1986. This was right in the middle of the fight over funding for the Nicaraguan contras; the money had been cut off by Congress in 1985, though Reagan got $100 million for this cause in 1986. Here is Gingrich: “Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire’s challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail. . . . President Reagan is clearly failing.” Why? This was due partly to “his administration’s weak policies, which are inadequate and will ultimately fail”; partly to CIA, State, and Defense, which “have no strategies to defeat the empire.” But of course “the burden of this failure frankly must be placed first on President Reagan.” Our efforts against the Communists in the Third World were “pathetically incompetent,” so those anti-Communist members of Congress who questioned the $100 million Reagan sought for the Nicaraguan “contra” rebels “are fundamentally right.” Such was Gingrich’s faith in President Reagan that in 1985, he called Reagan’s meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”
Gingrich scorned Reagan’s speeches, which moved a party and then a nation, because “the president of the United States cannot discipline himself to use the correct language.” In Afghanistan, Reagan’s policy was marked by “impotence [and] incompetence.” Thus Gingrich concluded as he surveyed five years of Reagan in power that “we have been losing the struggle with the Soviet empire.” Reagan did not know what he was doing, and “it is precisely at the vision and strategy levels that the Soviet empire today is superior to the free world.”
As funny as it is to watch Republicans argue over who is the true heir to the mostly mythical story of St. Ronnie, it’s even funnier to watch Newt be force fed his own words.