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Why Republicans Don’t Mind Newt’s Brazen Flip-Flops

“A flip-flopper of Romnetic proportions”—that’s how The Nation paraphrased MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough’s attack on his former congressional leader, Newt Gingrich. The two front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination, presumed nominee Mitt Romney and actual front-runner Gingrich, have each compiled staggering records of multiple positions on issues of importance to Republican voters, from health care to climate change. But to call Gingrich “Romnetic” (or Romney “Gingrijian”) is to miss the profound difference between the two men’s style.

Romney’s flips are tortured and self-conscious, shrouded in nuance and implausible stretches to reconcile two, three, or more positions. The individual mandate to buy health insurance that he embraced as governor of Massachusetts might have been suitable for one state, he says, but is a crime against liberty if government at the federal level imposes it on all states. He may have once said that climate change was real and caused by humans, but his newfound categorical opposition to cap-and-trade or any other effort to reduce emissions is justified because he never said how much they contributed. It could be close to zero.

Gingrich, on the other hand, makes no such attempt to reconcile his positions. Reflecting on his own acknowledgement of climate change, most notably in a joint advertisement with then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, he now calls the move “inexplicable.” He is able to bring to bear on his own past positions the same arsenal of fierce adjectives—“sick,” “deranged,” etc.—that in the early 1990s he advised his fellow Republicans to employ against Democrats. And recently he’s taken to warning listeners (that is, reporters and opponents) that if they characterize his position as anything other than what he says at that moment, it will be considered libel. Gingrich seems able to live in an eternal present, in which the statements and actions of each moment are unconnected to anything before or after.

Of course, I’m not the first to note that the Gingrich and Romney flip-flops are not so much indicators of their individual character (though they are that, too) as of the shifting nature of the Republican Party. In Romney’s case, what it takes to be acceptable to conservatives in 2012 has moved far to the right from what was required to be a conservative standard-bearer in 2008, and he’s scrambling to get there. Gingrich, too, is reacting to circumstances within his party. But here, too, he’s different from Romney, in that the party he’s reacting to is in many ways his own creation.

Gingrich did more than just move the Republican party to the right, as he built power for his congressional allies beginning in the mid-1980s and culminating in his four tumultuous years as Speaker of the House; he brought to the party a “say anything” style of politics that lives on long after his heyday, and that makes it a tactically formidable opposition force. While traditional conservatism had a stern attachment to continuity and an “eat your peas” commitment to principles even when they came at a short-term political cost, Gingrich was untethered, content to propose massive social initiatives—the most famous being to give a laptop computer to every schoolchild, back when laptops cost $5,000—at the same time that he would propose to shut down large government agencies and massively chop government spending. He was able to create a broad appeal by combining his optimistic, techno-visionary liberalism with angry shrink-government conservatism. His secret: He didn’t really mean any of it. He didn’t stick with any initiative long enough to confront the conflicts and contradictions between them.

“Say anything” conservatism allowed the Republicans to initiate a constitutional crisis by impeaching President Clinton and then casually move on as if admitting it was mere political theater; to promise spending cuts and then pass Medicare Part D instead; to denounce any Obama proposal as socialism even if it’s something their own party supported years or even months earlier. It allowed them to simultaneously pass Paul Ryan’s poorly designed proposal to end Medicare and attack Democrats for cutting Medicare.

The daring, improvisational style of the modern Republican Party is in many ways Newt Gingrich’s creation. And his flip-flops, unlike Romney’s nuanced legalisms, are perfectly suited to it.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.