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Gingrich: Republicans would win a showdown on de-funding health-care reform

At a luncheon at the Heritage Foundation -- his second meeting with conservative journalists and bloggers today -- Newt Gingrich expanded a bit on his argument, made most recently at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, that a new Republican Congress could roll back the Democrats' victory on health-care reform by refusing to fund it. I asked Gingrich how this would work, given the experience of Republicans in the winter of 1995 when a showdown over the budget forced a government shutdown.

"Wait a second," said Gingrich. "This is the standard, elite, inside-the-Beltway worldview. Tell me in what way we didn't win. After that, we got to a balanced budget. And what happened to the Republican majority?" The answer, of course, is that Republicans held the majority in 1996, while President Bill Clinton was reelected.

"I've always been amazed at this," said Gingrich. "Frankly, I was getting beaten up so bad that year -- there were 121,000 ads run against me around the country, and you had 83 ethics charges being filed -- everything being done, correctly in my judgment, piling on me, because they thought it was easier to beat me up than to the attack the message. And that actually did demoralize many Republicans. ... I kept thinking to myself, let me get this straight. We took a liberal Democratic president and stopped him in his tracks. We got on track for four years of balanced budgets. We had the slowest rate of increase [in spending] since Calvin Coolidge. And we reelected a Republican Congress for the first time since 1928. Which of those is bad?"

Gingrich, having argued that the 1995 shutdown was good for Republicans, argued that a potential battle over health care would be even better. "There's a new poll out this morning," said Gingrich, referring to a Rasmussen Reports study. "By 58 to 38, people want to repeal the health-care bill. It'll get worse as people learn more and as the failure of the bill becomes more obvious. So if you take that model, all the Republican Congress needs to say in January is, 'We won't fund it.' What the president needs to decide is: He's going to veto the bill. He needs to force a crisis on an issue that's a 58 to 38 issue. And it's going to get worse. It'll be 2 to 1 or better by the time we get down to the fight. Because this bill is terrible."

I followed up with Gingrich after the speech, largely to clarify how Clinton's reelection figured into this recollection of the shutdown. According to Gingrich, Clinton simply over-matched the Republicans in 1996 and skillfully made the speaker of the House his target. The ability of Republicans to hold onto Congress was impressiveness nonetheless. "I always look back on the budget fight as the moment our base decided we were real, that we weren't just politicians," said Gingrich. "I believe -- and John Kasich and Bob Livingston agree with me -- if we had backed off, we never would have gotten to a balanced budget."

Because the health-care bill is destined to remain unpopular, said Gingrich, President Obama's survival would hinge on how he adapted to Republican repeal efforts. "Nobody knows," he said. "He doesn't know. But if you talk to people who were in the room at the time, Clinton had a huge priority shift. His staff did not want him to bend. And he finally said to them, 'If I do what you want me to do, I'm going to get beaten.' Who says that to Obama? Does Axelrod? Does Plouffe?"

By David Weigel  |  April 13, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Election , Health Care , Newt Gingrich  
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