Newt Gingrich’s presidential candidacy is only days old, and more than a decade after he last campaigned for public office, he’s clearly shaking off some rust.
On Tuesday, the former House speaker stepped up outreach to conservatives in an attempt to backtrack from comments he made Sunday calling Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposed changes to Medicare “right-wing social engineering,” as Democrats sought to use his remarks to attack the GOP.
In a conference call with conservative bloggers, Gingrich said he “used language that was too strong” on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” and that he was reaching out to Ryan.
“My hope is to find a way to work with the House Republicans,” Gingrich said, according to Matt Lewis of the Daily Caller.
He also appeared on Republican commentator Bill Bennett’s radio show, where he was on the defensive from the outset. At first, he blamed adversarial questioning from the “Washington establishment,” and said he should have responded differently.
“I’m totally for what Paul Ryan is trying to do in general terms,” he said.
The “narrow question” he was asked, he said, was whether Republicans should adopt a plan that the public seems to oppose, not whether he agreed with it.
“I just said I am for the process of improving it. I didn’t say I was for the plan as it currently exists. I think that is an important distinction,” he said.
Bennett said that the issue was that he seemed to adopt Democratic criticism that Ryan’s plan was extreme.
“Ryan’s in the fight of his life, and you’re shooting at him from behind,” Bennett said.
“I am very worried that we end up trying to pass something that is not yet been thoroughly understood, has not yet been thoroughly developed,” Gingrich responded.
Ryan responded to Gingrich’s remarks on Monday, saying in a radio interview: “With allies like that, who needs the left?”
During his first trip as a presidential candidate to Iowa, Gingrich on Monday was also confronted by a voter who condemned him for undermining Ryan, and suggested he “get out now before you make a bigger fool of yourself.”
If Gingrich’s fellow Republicans were angry over his criticism of Ryan, they’re likely to be further riled that that his words are now the centerpiece of a new messaging blitz launched by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s House campaign arm.
The DCCC is targeting about 50 of what it considers vulnerable districts, using Gingrich’s words to underscore the contention that Ryan’s plan recklessly endangers Medicare.
The committee is also directing supporters to flood town-hall meetings this week while the House is in recess, going so far as to post a schedule of Republican events on a new website. Democrats are hoping for a repeat of last month, when the news media were filled with reports of clashes over Ryan’s Medicare proposal.
A release directed at Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from increasingly Democratic northern Virginia who has held his House seat for 30 years, is typical of the way the DCCC hopes to exploit Gingrich’s words.
“If House Republicans’ vote to end Medicare is too radical for even Newt Gingrich, then it’s definitely too extreme for middle class families and we are holding Republicans accountable in districts all across the country,” Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the DCCC, said in an emailed statement.
Other campaign committees are taking a similar approach. The Democratic Party in Georgia, the state Gingrich represented in Congress, asked in a release Tuesday: “We have a simple question for Congressmen Tom Graves, Tom Price, Rob Woodall, Paul Broun, Lynn Westmoreland, Austin Scott, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston: Do they still embrace a plan that even Newt Gingrich says is too extreme?”
At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked to comment on the controversy.
“Without wading into a dispute between Republicans, I would note that the former speaker of the House once said that he hoped to see Medicare wither on the vine and yet his position is now seen as too far to the left by some people in his party,” he said.