On issues such as Social Security, taxes and environmental regulation, the Newt Gingrich of the 1980s and 1990s is proving to be a problem for the 2012 presidential hopeful, who promises to fundamentally transform Washington.
From appearing in a television ad advocating global-warming awareness with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to backing the 1986 amnesty for illegal immigrants to his early support for an individual mandate requiring Americans to purchase health insurance, Mr. Gingrich's past is sprinkled with positions that cause some conservatives heartburn.
Mr. Gingrich earlier this year waved off the Pelosi ad as "probably the single dumbest thing I've done in years." And he now talks tough on immigration, calling for stiffer border security and demanding that English be made the country's official language.
More recently, Mr. Gingrich vowed during a campaign swing through South Carolina last week to stop Congress from borrowing Social Security funds to balance the federal budget, saying it amounts to balancing the books at the expense of "American workers" and "retirees."
But he failed to mention that's what happened on his watch as speaker of the House from 1995 through 1998, when lawmakers used more than $371 billion in Social Security funds to balance the federal ledger and produce the overall budget surpluses that he now uses as proof that he is ready to "profoundly change" Washington.
During the campaign stop, R.C. Hammond, Mr. Gingrich's campaign spokesman, brushed off the notion that the way his boss wants to handle the federal retirement program — versus how he handled it then — will hurt his the candidate's chances in the GOP nomination race.
Mr. Hammond said the former speaker of the House is more than willing to admit when he is wrong.
Peter Ferrara, an economic adviser for the campaign, offered a more nuanced response in a late night email to The Washington Times. In it, he wrote that Mr. Gingrich presided over deep federal spending cuts that transformed "decades of deficits into the largest surpluses in American history" and the "the largest capital gains tax rate cut in history."
"He never claimed those achievements completed the 'Revolution'," Mr. Ferrera said, alluding to the 1994 midterms election, where Mr. Gingrich is credited with ushering in a GOP takeover of Congress. "What remains to be done is explained in the new 21st century Contract with America, which includes fundamental Social Security reform. That is what he is advocating now, which includes taking Social Security out of the federal budget on the way to starting and eventually expanding personal accounts for Social Security, ultimately empowering workers with the freedom to choose to replace the entire payroll tax with such savings, investment and insurance accounts, financing all of the benefits financed by the payroll tax today."
Still, these sorts of story lines are expected to garner more attention now that the Georgia Republican has climbed in national polls and delivered campaign pledges that appear to clash with parts of his record in the House and the years since pontificating on the ins and outs of Washington politics and policy.
"Newt has made many controversial and inaccurate statements over 20-plus years," said Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "One example: He called Spanish the language of the ghetto. Imagine how that will sell with Hispanics and Latinos."
Mr. Sabato, though, was careful to couch his statement. "No one would deny he's a highly intelligent, talented, exceptionally knowledgeable debater," he said. "It's not fair to mention only the negatives. I try to balance it in 'a tale of two Newts.'"
Any politician with decades in the public sphere is bound to amass some inconsistencies, and Mr. Gingrich, who spent years as the chief thorn in the sides of Washington Democrats, had to stake out a number of compromises that seem anathema to some in the current crop of tea party-inspired Republican primary voters.
"He has embraced cap-and-trade. He has embraced the individual mandate in the health care debate. He was an advocate for Medicare Part D [prescription-drug benefit]," said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, an influential group that opposes big government spending. Mr. Chocola is a former Republican congressman from Indiana who served after Mr. Gingrich left Congress.
In its analysis of Mr. Gingrich's congressional record, the Club found, among other things, that he "has an affinity, all too common even among conservative politicians, for gimmicky, special-interest tax incentives that empower politicians to pick winners and losers in the marketplace."
"His favorite device is the tax credit," the report said, pointing to a series of breaks Mr. Gingrich favored, including a 50 percent tax cut for companies that tackled government's "grand challenges," such as development of "the first inhabitable moon base."
Mr. Gingrich's support of a health care mandate haunted him last month during a debate in Las Vegas, when he ditched the "above-the-fray" strategy that helped him avoid firefights with his GOP rivals.
After Mr. Gingrich threw a jab at the universal health care system that Mitt Romney adopted as governor of Massachusetts, his front-running rival countered by asking, point-blank: "Have you supported in the past an individual mandate?"
The Georgia Republican eventually said, "I absolutely did, with the Heritage Foundation, against 'Hillarycare,'" alluding to Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care proposal of the early 1990s.
Roy Beck, of Numbers USA, a group that favors greater efforts to curb illegal immigration, said Mr. Gingrich treats immigration as a "second thought" and that the group gave him a D for his performance on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Beck singled out Mr. Gingrich's support of amnesty proposals and the role he played in stripping provisions from the Immigration Control and Financial Responsibility Act of 1996 aimed at ending "chain migration" and requiring all employers to verify the work authorization of all employees, which later became the E-Verify system that he said Mr. Gingrich now supports.
"I think the way he's dealt with amnesty is the way he has dealt with most immigration issues," Mr. Beck said. "He's kind of all over the place and ... it seems to depend on who he's talking to at the time. It's a very undisciplined way in which he deals with it."
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