Ramesh Ponnuru
Ramesh Ponnuru

Even Newt Gingrich’s toughest critics concede that the former speaker of the House, now enjoying his second comeback in the Republican presidential race, is a font of ideas.

Republican voters who listen to him hear proposals they have never heard before: bold, exciting proposals, made with complete confidence in their workability. His originality is a big part of his appeal. But even his fans concede that not all of his ideas are good.

Everyone has good and bad ideas, of course. Getting them all tangled up with each other is one of the chief characteristics of Gingrich’s intellectual style.

Take Social Security. Gingrich correctly labels as a “fantasy” the notion that it can “survive without any structural reforms.” He advocates allowing people to invest some of the funds they currently submit to Social Security in “personal accounts.” Under the right circumstances, personal accounts can be a useful way of setting aside money today for future retirements -- something the government has not been good at -- and of democratizing capital ownership.

The Gingrich Twist

But then comes the Gingrich twist: His plan guarantees that if people’s investments fail, they will still get all the benefits that current law promises them. How can the government save money while giving everyone their promised benefits and making up unlucky or incompetent investors’ shortfalls? It can’t. And won’t those shortfalls be larger if people know they can’t lose?

Plenty of Social Security plans involve the government saving money in the long term by taking a hit in the present. Gingrich has managed to devise a plan that actually increases the program’s long-term cost. The price tag for Gingrich’s originality, based on estimates of similar proposals in years past, would be several trillion dollars. The plan simply assumes that spending on the rest of the budget will be cut so dramatically, and the increased national saving will so boost economic growth and thus tax revenue, that we will be able to afford a much-larger Social Security program.

On immigration, too, Gingrich starts with a set of sensible premises. We need to be able to enforce our immigration laws, but “the American people are not heartless” and will not deport illegal immigrants who have spent years putting down roots here. Gingrich puts forward two distinctive solutions. One is a temporary work program proposed by the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation to satisfy businesses’ demand for labor. But there’s a problem with temporary work programs: What if their participants have kids while they are here?

Current law treats those children as citizens. To enforce the time limit on the program, the government has three options: tear apart families; eject citizens; or change the law to strip those kids of citizenship. The foundation picks Option 3. Gingrich is silent about which he would pick, or how he would do any of this without heartlessness.

Gingrich’s second immigration idea is to establish local community boards to decide which illegal immigrants should stay and which should go. His website says Congress must set “understandable, clear, objective legal standards that will be applied equally.” If some boards decide to offer sanctuary to everyone and others are tough, or if some boards practice blatant discrimination, will there be another layer of bureaucracy to review their decisions? Who is going to perform the millions of background checks that Gingrich says must be done before the boards review applications? To describe how unserious this proposal is requires using Gingrich’s favorite adverbs: truly, profoundly, fundamentally.

On Judicial Power

Consider, finally, Gingrich’s much-discussed desire to weaken the federal courts. The view that the courts have much more power than they used to have, and that this change is mostly unfortunate, is a respectable one. The view that Congress and the president should respond on occasion by limiting the courts’ jurisdiction, as Gingrich wants, ought to be respectable, too.

But Gingrich cannot, of course, stop there. He also has to call for Congress to summon judges to explain their decisions, which would be both pointless (they already write opinions), and wrong (congressmen have no constitutional power to hector judges). And he wants to abolish liberal circuit courts and replace them with conservative ones, which is an obvious attempt to ignore the Constitution’s grant of life tenure to judges.

Anyone who proposes that judicial power should be checked arouses the suspicion that what he really wants is freedom from the constraints of the law. Gingrich’s solution to this problem is to confirm the charge instantaneously.

Gingrich has more original ideas than most of us. But for a president, what’s much more important is the ability to tell the good ones from the bad -- an ability called judgment.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net