TAMPA — He wanted to be president of the United States, but this week Newt Gingrich must settle for president of Newt U.
Newt University is the Republican National Convention's official series of "public policy workshops" for delegates, journalists and party activists. Gingrich, the former House speaker and onetime Republican candidate for president, leads a rotating crop of ad hoc professors who will hold court on themes ranging from "We Can Do Better" to "We Believe in America" in different hotels through Thursday.
The two-hour seminars aren't exactly academic affairs. When Gingrich opened the series Monday at the downtown Hyatt Regency, the dominant theme on the syllabus was Medicare or, more specifically, what the professors characterized as President Barack Obama's effort to kill it.
Gingrich said he'd been "startled" by Democrats' attempts to distort the impact of Obama's health care law. He told his pupils, many of them Wisconsin delegates who came to hear Gov. Scott Walker speak, that Republicans struggled with the following problem:
"We tell the truth less effectively than Democrats lie."
He launched into a brief discussion of the Republican presidential ticket's Medicare plan.
For seniors age 55 and up, he said, "Nothing affects you, and Barack Obama has taken $716 billion from you. … You talk about who's tearing up Medicare, and it's Obama."
PolitiFact, the fact-checking website of the Tampa Bay Times, rated a similar claim by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney Half True. The law doesn't cut $716 billion from the Medicare budget, but rather institutes a number of changes to bring down future costs.
PolitiFact also rated the claim that the Republican plan does not "affect" seniors over 55 as Half True. If Republicans repeal the health care law, that would also repeal provisions that give seniors preventive care with no out-of-pocket costs and additional help with prescription drug coverage.
Another teacher at Monday's event, former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey, said in her lecture that Obama's plan to reduce certain Medicare reimbursement rates would be harmful to seniors.
"The administration would like you to believe that living to a ripe old age is a burden on the public coffers," she said before solemnly adding: "Living to a ripe old age happens to be a good value."
Other speakers included Walker, the Wisconsin governor, who received a standing ovation. He spoke about his efforts to reduce tax rates and institute public education changes, including ending tenure.
Pupils wandered in and out of the lectures, some listening intently, some reading newspapers. Mary Ann Waldenmeyer, a 67-year-old alternate delegate from Kansas, stood out for wearing a hat (a block of cheese, to honor her Wisconsin roots).
She said Newt U didn't introduce her to new material, but did elaborate on subjects with which she was familiar. "A lot of the numbers were clearer," she said.
Charles and Mary Rose Spano, a husband and wife from Scranton, Pa., said the lectures were the highlight of a slow Monday. Mary Rose, 67, is an alternate delegate.
Though about 150 people, a third of them journalists, attended Monday's lectures, more than 1,000 people registered online, according to organizers.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.