Among the latest twists in the Republican presidential campaign is this: Mitt Romney, long accused by foes of flip-flopping on issues, is now being given a run for his money by another candidate who shares the same liability: Newt Gingrich.
For years, Gingrich supported the idea that citizens could be required by mandate to buy health insurance, like in the health care overhauls initiated by Romney while he was governor of Massachusetts in 2006 and on the national level by President Obama last year. Now, Gingrich opposes such an idea.
In 2008, Gingrich filmed a commercial with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a liberal Democrat, urging action on climate change. But last month on Fox News he called it “probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.’’
Last May, he criticized as “right-wing social engineering’’ the proposal of Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, to convert Medicare, the single-payer style health insurance program for the elderly, into a premium-support voucher program in which seniors privately purchase insurance. After that ignited a firestorm of protest, he quickly backed off, apologized to Ryan, and said his “words were inaccurate and unfortunate.’’
And, in what may be the most notable example: In a debate Oct. 11, Gingrich said that Democrat Barney Frank, the former House Financial Services Committee chairman, should be jailed for lax oversight of Freddie Mac, the quasi-public mortgage underwriting giant. It was later reported that Gingrich was paid up to $1.8 milllion in consulting fees by Freddie Mac, up to the time it collapsed in 2008.
As Gingrich’s once-faltering presidential primary campaign has picked up steam — he leads in polls in Iowa, and has gained ground in New Hampshire — Romney has begun to point out the Gingrich flip-flops. Meanwhile, the campaign of another GOP presidential rival, Ron Paul, issued a video last week accusing him of “serial hypocrisy’’ on several issues.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond dismissed the charges. “The mudslinging is coming, but we’re going to stay positive. Americans are looking for leadership to fix the direction that the country is headed in. We’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing, running a solutions-oriented campaign,’’ he said.
The dispute over the nature of Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac has gone back and forth. Gingrich initially said he had been hired as a “historian,’’ but Bloomberg News reported that former agency officials said he was retained to “build bridges’’ to congressional Republicans and conservatives “seeking to dismantle it.’’
Gingrich later said he provided “strategic advice’’ and only worked about an hour a month on the Freddie Mac account. The Washington Post calculated “that would suggest that Gingrich earned up to $30,000 an hour.’’
Now a fierce critic of how the agency is run, he was supportive in his past statements.
One example of Gingrich’s onetime backing of the mortgage giant was provided by John E. Sununu, former Republican US senator from New Hampshire, in a Globe op-ed piece last week.
Sununu recalled that in 2005 he was a co-sponsor of legislation to reform Freddie Mac, including scaling back its risky investment portfolios.
“It came as no surprise that they immediately unleashed a well-paid army to oppose the bill,’’ he wrote. “It was surprising, however, to learn Newt was among them.’’
And two years later, Gingrich was protecting the troubled agency from a fundamental overhaul, saying in a 2007 speech that a website, Verum Serum, found on the Freddie Mac website: “While we need to improve the regulation of the [government-sponsored enterprises], I would be very cautious about fundamentally changing their role or the model itself.’’
This year, Gingrich has written that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “are so thoroughly politicized and preside over such irresponsible lending policies that they need to be replaced with smaller, private companies operating without government guarantees, whose leaders focus on making a profit, not manipulating politicians.’’
The flip-flop issue is not the only distraction for Gingrich as he emerges as the chief alternative to Romney in the GOP primary vote. After his quick rise in the polls, his business activities have also come under intense scrutiny.
He has been a principal or director of a network of consulting and media companies, and a for-profit think tank sponsored by many leading companies with health care interests. His net worth has increased by somewhere between 12 and 50 times what it was when he left Congress in 1999.
Gingrich also comes with the heavy political baggage of three marriages, past adultery, and a precedent-setting reprimand by his House colleagues that included a $300,000 penalty for ethical wrongdoing.
He maintains he has changed and learned from his mistakes, but a lesser candidate without Gingrich’s experience and GOP bona fides would probably be punished by voters for such transgressions.
At a recent campaign stop in South Carolina, Gingrich rejected a suggestion that he had cashed in on his status as a former legislative leader.
“I did no lobbying of any kind — period,’’ the Associated Press quoted him as saying. “I’m going to be really direct, OK? I was charging $60,000 a speech. And the number of speeches was going up, not down.’’
Rick Tyler, who was Gingrich’s spokesman for nearly 12 years before joining the exodus of staff from the campaign in June, said: “I’ve never seen Newt fret or worry over money. . . . I was on a conference call when Newt turned down a $1 million contract to be a spokesman for something he wasn’t interested in. . . . All of his efforts focus on large-scale change, and they are consistent with who Newt was when he was elected to Congress.’’
Rich Galen, who worked for Gingrich for about six years in the late 1980s and 1990s and admires him, said the candidate is driven by strategy and appreciates nuance.
“The first two times he ran for Congress as a moderate and lost. It’s never been clear to me whether some of these positions were taken because he needed a starker contrast with the Democrats or the president or if he really believed every semicolon that came out of his mouth,’’ said Galen.
“I don’t think he sees these things as black-and-white as his rhetoric would lead you to believe.’’Brian C. Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.