Eliot Abrams, who worked in the Reagan administration as an assistant secretary of state, has an eye-opening column about Gingrich's rhetoric at the time when speaking about Reagan's foreign policy. Gingrich didn't think that Reagan had been doing enough to fight communism and the Soviet Union and took to the floor of the Senate to blast the President.
But the most bitter battleground was often in Congress. Here at home, we faced vicious criticism from leading Democrats — Ted Kennedy, Christopher Dodd, Jim Wright, Tip O’Neill, and many more — who used every trick in the book to stop Reagan by denying authorities and funds to these efforts. On whom did we rely up on Capitol Hill? There were many stalwarts: Henry Hyde, elected in 1974; Dick Cheney, elected in 1978, the same year as Gingrich; Dan Burton and Connie Mack, elected in 1982; and Tom DeLay, elected in 1984, were among the leaders.Whoa. Gingrich has been criticizing Mitt Romney for saying that he wasn't a Reagan man when he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994. That is a troubling quote. But going to the floor of the House to call Reagan had "failed" and that our efforts against Communists were “pathetically incompetent,” and comparing Reagan to Neville Chamberlain is pretty strong stuff. And he was kicking Reagan at a time when Reagan was getting knocked around by many Europeans as well as the Democrats. Talk about giving cover to the enemy. Rather like how Gingrich's criticisms of Paul Ryan's reform plans for Medicare or Romney's work at Bain, now that I think about it.
But not Newt Gingrich. He voted with the caucus, but his words should be remembered, for at the height of the bitter struggle with the Democratic leadership Gingrich chose to attack . . . Reagan.
The best examples come from a famous floor statement Gingrich made on March 21, 1986. This was right in the middle of the fight over funding for the Nicaraguan contras; the money had been cut off by Congress in 1985, though Reagan got $100 million for this cause in 1986. Here is Gingrich: “Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire’s challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail. . . . President Reagan is clearly failing.” Why? This was due partly to “his administration’s weak policies, which are inadequate and will ultimately fail”; partly to CIA, State, and Defense, which “have no strategies to defeat the empire.” But of course “the burden of this failure frankly must be placed first on President Reagan.” Our efforts against the Communists in the Third World were “pathetically incompetent,” so those anti-Communist members of Congress who questioned the $100 million Reagan sought for the Nicaraguan “contra” rebels “are fundamentally right.” Such was Gingrich’s faith in President Reagan that in 1985, he called Reagan’s meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”
Gingrich scorned Reagan’s speeches, which moved a party and then a nation, because “the president of the United States cannot discipline himself to use the correct language.” In Afghanistan, Reagan’s policy was marked by “impotence [and] incompetence.” Thus Gingrich concluded as he surveyed five years of Reagan in power that “we have been losing the struggle with the Soviet empire.” Reagan did not know what he was doing, and “it is precisely at the vision and strategy levels that the Soviet empire today is superior to the free world.”
As Abrams writes,
There are two things to be said about these remarks. The first is that as a visionary, Gingrich does not have a very impressive record. The Soviet Union was beginning to collapse, just as Reagan had believed it must. The expansion of its empire had been thwarted. The policies Gingrich thought so weak and indeed “pathetic” worked, and Ronald Reagan turned out to be a far better student of history and politics than Gingrich.If the Romney people are smart, they will be feeding these quotes from Gingrich to their candidate so Mitt can unleash them in a debate.
The second point to make is that Gingrich made these assaults on the Reagan administration just as Democratic attacks were heating up unmercifully. Far from becoming a reliable voice for Reagan policy and the struggle against the Soviets, Gingrich took on Reagan and his administration.
And Abrams reminds us of what Newt was saying when George W. Bush was fighting critics for the surge in Iraq.
Here again Gingrich provided no support for his party’s embattled president, testifying as a private citizen in 2007 that the strategy was “inadequate,” contained “breathtaking” gaps, lacked “synergism” (whatever that means), and was “very disappointing.” What did Gingrich propose? Among other things, a 50 percent increase in the budget of the State Department.Maybe that was the time period when Newt was cozying up to inside-the-Beltway poohbahs so that he could get on TV and earn favorable press. Rather like sitting on a couch to make an ad with Nancy Pelosi.
Presidents should not get automatic support, not even from members of their own party, but they have a right to that support when they are under a vicious partisan assault. Today it is fair to look back and ask who had it right: Gingrich, who backed away from and criticized Republican presidents, or those chief executives, who were making difficult and consequential decisions on national security. Bush on the surge and Reagan on the Soviet empire were tough, courageous — and right. Newt Gingrich in retrospect seems less the visionary than the politician who refused the party’s leader loyal support on grounds that history has proved were simply wrong.
Expect to see these points in some ads in Florida. I wonder how bashing Reagan's approach to the Soviet Union and Communists in Latin America would go down among Cuban-Americans in Florida. It will tarnish Gingrich's attempts to pretend that he is the only true conservative in the race. And using his own words against him is especially sweet since that is what people are attracted to right now - Newt's words and his claim to be a conservative visionary.