Newt Gingrich is always talkative, usually provocative — and occasionally right.
Last Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, the former House speaker and current presidential candidate took a swipe at Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to essentially privatize Medicare and turn the entitlement into a voucher system.
"I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering... I think we need a national conversation to get to a better Medicare system with more choices for seniors,'' Gingrich said. "I am against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.''
Ryan is the 2011 version of the 1994 Gingrich, the bright idea guy and the architect of the budget blueprint for conservative Republicans. In a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board last year, Gingrich called Ryan "the most sophisticated all-around reformer in the Republican Party." Even though it is entirely accurate to call Ryan's Medicare proposal radical, that was too much truth for Republicans.
By Tuesday, Gingrich was forced to apologize to Ryan and quell the uproar. He even claimed on Fox News that anyone quoting his original quotes would be misquoting him because he made a mistake. Sorry, Newt, I couldn't resist.
Gingrich has a habit of making bold statements and retracting them. But this dustup also illustrates the ridiculous rigidity of what passes for political debate. Mitt Romney is in even worse shape than Gingrich. His effort to distinguish the health care reforms he oversaw as governor of Massachusetts from President Barack Obama's similar national reforms is pretzel logic no one buys — particularly the Republican conservatives he desperately needs as he mounts his second run for president. As the uninspiring Republican field lumbers toward the Iowa caucuses, there is no room for dissent or even debate that might upset the tea party wing.
Republicans aren't alone in their intolerance for views that don't parrot the party line. In an ugly incident in the Florida Legislature this year, Rep. Daphne Campbell of Miami was harassed by at least one Democratic colleague for supporting new abortion restrictions. A difference in deeply personal opinion escalated into a fight with racial and gender bias overtones, and the intransigence on all sides reflected the intolerance that infects state and national politics.
It seems everyone is a sworn enemy of anyone with a different viewpoint, and there is no one searching for the middle ground in Tallahassee or Washington. Both political parties are too often held hostage by their most extreme elements, and there is little consensus building within their own ranks — much less reaching across the aisle. Democrats have been shut out in Tallahassee by perhaps the most conservative governor and Legislature in modern times. In Washington, even the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Six appears to be failing after negotiating a deficit reduction plan for months.
Amid the gloom, I found two small rays of hope last week in a Democratic member of Congress from Tampa and Republican voters from Jacksonville.
In a frank discussion with the Times editorial board, Rep. Kathy Castor recited the Democratic Party line about the fight over raising the federal debt ceiling. She said any plan for automatic triggers to reduce the federal deficit if Congress does not act on its own should include both spending cuts and revenue increases. But Castor went on to say that to raise revenue, she would be willing to explore limiting or phasing out the tax deduction for home mortgage interest as part of a broad deficit reduction plan. Similarly, she also would explore capping or phasing out the tax exclusion on employer-provided health insurance. In another era, Democrats wouldn't dare to raise either issue. But we're in different times, and Castor's moderate pragmatism reflects the sorts of discussions we all should be having about tough choices.
The bigger news came in generally conservative Jacksonville, which elected a Democrat as mayor for the first time in 20 years. Alvin Brown stitched together a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to narrowly upset conservative Republican Mike Hogan, who was backed by the tea party movement and Gov. Rick Scott. Brown, who also becomes the city's first African-American mayor, ran as a centrist and focused on job creation. A Florida Times-Union analysis found Brown ran up large margins in Democratic precincts, won some precincts a more moderate Republican won in the primary, and kept it closer in precincts Hogan won.
Gingrich and Romney are grappling with the extreme ideologues in the Republican Party, and I wouldn't bet on either of them making it to the 2012 national party convention in Tampa to accept the Republican nomination for president. But in Florida, there is at least a glimmer of hope that pragmatic moderates are not extinct — at least outside Tallahassee.