There’s no need to recap the plot of the Republicans’ top-rated show, This Week in Newt, because we all know it by now. Besides, a new episode begins on Sunday. Gingrich is slated to appear on Face The Nation, where he will try not to dig himself a deeper hole.But as we monitor his problematic presidential candidacy, let’s not lose sight of the big picture. Ultimately, this is not about Newt’s struggles to extricate his foot from his throat. This is really about the Republicans’ embrace of an unpopular ideological crusade that could kill them in 2012.As I briefly noted the other day, Newt’s big sin was that he breached current party orthodoxy and dared to criticize the House Republican bid to eradicate Medicare (government health care for seniors) and replace it with a privatized system (which would force seniors to pay a lot more money out of pocket). He called it “right-wing social engineering,” and he nailed it. Moreover, his stance was smack in the middle of the American mainstream; four national polls have lately reported landslide majority support for keeping Medicare just the way it is.What infuriated the Republican gatekeepers on Capitol Hill and in the punditocracy (among others, Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Rush Limbaugh, and Charles Krauthammer) was that Newt refused to get with the program. Apparently these days, a conservative is not fully credentialed unless he marches in lock step with the idea that seniors should be forced to pay more money for their health coverage. That’s the new party brand, and flagrant deviations will not be tolerated. (Other candidates have wisely said little or nothing about the Ryan budget plan, which features the death of traditional Medicare.)Bottom line: Republicans have put themselves in an awkward political position. Their new orthodoxy is a privatization plan that the public doesn’t want. They’re ticked at Newt for giving Democrats a devastating campaign line – the kill-Medicare crusade is “right-wing social engineering” – but they’re the ones who did the damage and put themselves in play, by branding themselves as Medicare-killers in the first place.A big best is in the offing next week, when the ruling Senate Democrats are expected to schedule the Ryan budget plan for a vote. This move by Harry Reid is pure political gamesmanship; he wants to put the Republicans on the spot – and force them to decide whether to echo the new orthodoxy, or run for the hills. When the House Republicans voted a few months ago, there were only four defectors. It’s a good bet that a number of senators will break ranks next week, mindful of the public mood.Here’s the mood: According to the mid-April Washington Post-ABC News poll, 65 percent of Americans oppose the privatization plan. And when people are told that seniors’ out-of-pocket costs would go up, the opposition hits 80 percent.And here’s my favorite polling stat: According to a mid-April McClatchy-Marist survey, 70 percent of self-identified “tea party supporters” oppose cutting Medicare. (These are the folks who have famously said, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”)So this is the big issue that the GOP’s orthodoxy cops insist on defending? Newt may have been tactically wrong to dismiss the crusade in such colorful language – but, mindful of political reality, he was substantively right to dissent.——-I was a guest earlier today on WHYY’s “Radio Times,” for an hour-long chat about the 2012 Republican president contest. I was paired with Mark McKinnon, the ex-George W. Bush strategist who writes a regular (and incisive) column for The Daily Beast. McKinnon said on the air that although he agrees with the Ryan blueprint for overhauling Medicare, as a matter of policy, he also fears that the plan will cost the Republicans dearly in the next campaign.
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