Newt Gingrich — campaigning with Ronald Reagan’s son Michael — has, as many recent Republican candidates have before him, tried to tie himself closely to the legacy of the “Gipper.” Yet if the mirage of Ronald Reagan as a fiscal conservative, manufactured in the late 1990s by Republican operatives to bludgeon then-President Bill Clinton, is properly melted away with facts, the true Republican champion of fiscal conservatism is, well … Newt Gingrich.
Newt, of course, has besmirched his title somewhat since he left office by opportunistically being a lobbyist (using the commonsense definition of the word) for a government-coddled organization — Freddie Mac — that is partially responsible for the irresponsible lending that led to the nation’s mortgage crisis and deep recession. And this hypocrisy from a small-government conservative is matched by his equally hypocritical persecution of Bill Clinton for having an extramarital affair when he was doing the same thing. Also, to win votes, Newt has promoted an unneeded, costly, and downright ludicrous moon base and the typical jingoistic Republican foreign policy, including advocacy of fomenting an uprising in Cuba. Finally, Newt has an arrogant and downright mean streak that would become annoying after a few days in the White House.
Yet some, including me, would argue that much of this matters little and that voters should focus like a laser beam on what Newt did while he was in office as a predictor of what he would do as president. In fact, Gingrich’s efforts to trim government are much better than the Gipper’s, which were largely fraudulent.
Mitt Romney, Gingrich’s nemesis for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, has “carpet bombed” the voters with ads alleging that in his diary, “Reagan criticized Gingrich, saying Newt’s ideas would ‘cripple our defense program.’” Romney’s ad concludes: “Reagan rejected Gingrich’s ideas. On leadership and character, Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan.” Whew!
Why such relief is appropriate becomes clear when Reagan’s full diary entry on Gingrich is exposed to sunlight. As a young congressman, Newt Gingrich had proposed freezing the federal budget. Reagan, always full of fiscally conservative hot air but short on results, wrote “it’s a tempting idea” before nixing it.
Of all Democratic and Republican presidents since Harry Truman, Democrat Bill Clinton has by far the best record in cutting federal spending, both per capita and as a portion of GDP, according to the book Presimetrics, a quantitative assessment of the presidents by economists Mike Kimel and Michael E. Kanell. And yes, some of these reductions were in the defense budget, but the Cold War had ended and the always overrated threat from creaking Soviet communism had evaporated completely. If anything, Gingrich’s bucking up of Clinton’s budget-cutting and welfare-reforming spine is somewhat exaggerated (during the first two years of Clinton’s presidency, with a Democratic Congress, Clinton cut the federal budget as a percentage of GDP at a faster rate than during the remaining six years of his term, with Gingrich as speaker of the House of Representatives and the Republicans also in control of the Senate), but Gingrich’s role in downsizing government was still significant. Whereas the Clinton-Gingrich adversarial team cut federal spending as a portion of GDP more than an average of 2% per year, annualized federal spending as a portion of GDP increased during the Reagan era.
The vaunted Reagan tax cuts were partially offset by later surreptitious tax hikes. Even these net tax cuts as a portion of GDP were slight and earned Reagan only a fifth place among post-Truman Republican presidential administrations (dead last) in annualized federal tax reductions as a portion of GDP, according to Presimetrics. But given that Reagan was increasing spending, he patented the fake tax cut, which has been used by subsequent Republican presidents, including George W. Bush. When tax cuts occur without matching spending reductions, deficits yawn and future generations have to pay the bill with increased future taxes, large interest payments on the increasing debt, or the inflationary effects of money supply increases. And according to Presimetrics, Clinton and Gingrich achieved an annualized reduction in debt as a percentage of GDP, while Reagan was the grand champion of all presidents since Truman in ballooning it — hiking it a whopping 6% and narrowly edging out his Republican compatriot George W. Bush.
Finally, the civilian executive branch workforce as a percentage of the total U.S. population decreased from the John F. Kennedy–Lyndon Johnson administration until the Reagan administration, when it began to rise again. Once Reagan left office, the percentage began to go back down. In short, for post-Truman presidential administrations, in terms of the annualized increase in the number of civilian federal employees as a percentage of the population, the Reagan administration placed second only to the Kennedy-Johnson presidency. In contrast, the Clinton-Gingrich period won first prize with an annualized decline in civilian federal employees as a percentage of the population at slightly less than 3%, according to Presimetrics. In all, during the Clinton-Gingrich period, the federal civilian payroll plunged by about 20% — a big reason why the federal budget as a portion of GDP fell so much during this time.
Although this article is by no means an endorsement of Newt Gingrich for president, his accomplishments in shrinking government are actually much better than his idol’s. In sum, Gingrich is no Reagan. Thank God!
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