Gingrich Struggles to Reset Medicare Discussion

Newt Gingrich was on the defensive Sunday morning as he attempted to explain his stance on House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan.

The former Speaker said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that his now-infamous statement last week on NBC’s “Meet the Press” was misconstrued. Gingrich said he wasn’t asked about Ryan (R-Wis.) or his budget, which he emphasized he would vote for. Rather, he was asked whether the GOP should pass an unpopular plan, Gingrich said.

“I made the mistake of accepting [host David Gregory’s] premise. I wasn’t referring to Ryan,” he said. “I was referring to a general principle. We the people should not have Washington impose large-scale change on us.”

But “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer challenged Gingrich, playing a clip from last week’s interview that showed Gingrich referring to Ryan. During that interview, Gingrich responded to a question about Ryan’s plan by saying, “I think that that 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 — I’m against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.”

Schieffer asked Sunday whether the Ryan plan was “too big a jump,” as the former Speaker had said.

“I think it is a big plan that needs to be worked through with the American people,” Gingrich said.

Gingrich said he “probably used unfortunate language about social engineering” but added “that neither party should impose on the American people something that they are deeply opposed to.”

Schieffer pressed him on whether the plan was “good social engineering.”

Gingrich replied, “It’s not a question of good social engineering. I believe the Republicans should start with the Ryan plan, should go to the country and explain it, but should listen to the American people and, where necessary, modify it.”

The Medicare proposal, which is a component of a House-passed budget resolution, would revamp the federal health insurance program for seniors and the disabled. Users would instead buy private insurance, and Medicare would help subsidize the cost by making payments to the chosen plan. The proposal would only affect those age 54 and younger; the current Medicare system would not change for those 55 and older.

The backlash from the Republican Party to Gingrich’s interview last week was immediate, with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Ryan and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh among those criticizing the Georgian. The Wall Street Journal distilled the anger at the former Speaker in an editorial titled “Gingrich to House GOP: Drop Dead.”

In an appearance Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Ryan was critical of Gingrich’s words the previous week, but he indicated he’s ready to move on.

“The quote was deeply inaccurate. It was a gross mischaracterization of the House Republican budget plan,” Ryan said. “Newt’s acknowledged that, he’s retracted it. And let’s be clear what we’re proposing here. This is as sensible and gradual as it gets. ... The point is this: We’ve got to get beyond this, and we’ve got to get on to a serious conversation about what it takes to fix the fiscal problems in this country.”

Schieffer asked a fidgeting Gingrich whether his campaign was all but finished.

Gingrich said he had found a positive response from voters in Iowa and blamed the Washington press corps for last week’s controversy. “None of the people rendering judgment in Washington had talked to the voters in Iowa. None,” Gingrich said.

Asked Sunday about the revelation last week that his wife had disclosed in 2005 and 2006 that the couple owed between $250,000 and $500,000 to the jewelry store Tiffany & Co., the former Speaker appeared miffed.

“Go talk to Tiffany’s,” Gingrich said. “We are very frugal. We, in fact, live within our budget. We owe nothing.”

Schieffer circled back to the issue. “What did you buy?” he asked with some incredulity.

“It’s my private life,” Gingrich said.

“I mean, you’re running for president,” Schieffer said. “You’re going to be the guy in charge of the Treasury Department, and it just sticks out like a sore thumb.”

Gingrich pushed back hard. “I currently owe nothing except [a mortgage] on one rental property in Wisconsin,” he said. “I am debt-free. If the U.S. government were as debt-free as I am, everybody would be celebrating.”

On foreign policy, an angry-sounding Gingrich criticized President Barack Obama on Israel, Libya and Syria. “We need a fundamental reassessment of our policy in the whole region,” he said.