Back in the 1990’s, new House Speaker Newt Gingrich made me furious with his Contract with America, which critics dubbed the Contract on America. It was an era of slash-and-burn, anti-government GOP ascendancy, when in 1995 the Republican Party took over the House for the first time in 40 years. The victory signaled a more intense fight for smaller government, lower taxes, Constitutional Amendment for a balanced budget, line-item veto and more. Not all of it was bad: it would have subjected Congress to the laws it passed for the rest of us. That didn’t happen. Combined with more venomous political rhetoric, the Contract was a leap forward in divisive partisanship nationally.
As a young man, Gingrich got a doctorate in history and became a professor of history and geography at a small university in Georgia. After a couple of unsuccessful bids, he secured a seat in Congress in 1978. A highly intelligent man, he became increasingly aggressive about his conservative causes as his political career took off. In 1995, TIME Magazine named him man of the year for his role in the partisan turn-around in the House.
Partisanship then wasn’t the vitriol of today. Gingrich did manage to work with President Bill Clinton to get some things done, including reasonable tax and welfare reform. In ’97, Gingrich ran afoul of House ethics rules, and, when Republicans lost seats in the midterm elections, he was blamed for it. He resigned the Speakership.
Ever since then, there have been two Newt Gingrich’s. One is Gingrich the big-thinking statesman, the man who has substantively engaged in health care policy and lectured on national defense issues. A regular on the talking head circuit, he has often been a voice of reasoned conservatism. The other Gingrich is the narrow-minded troll who emerges in Presidential election years, sometimes as a candidate, who is irredeemably nasty.
So, why did Newt Gingrich make my eyes mist over? He has an op ed in the New York Times today calling for a doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health. It was something he had worked to do in a bipartisan way with Bill Clinton two decades ago because, he writes, “health is both a moral and financial issue.” I was moved because such enlightenment hasn’t been much in evidence in the Republican Party of late.
Gingrich decries the flattening out of the NIH budget since that last bipartisan 5-year boost in funding. Given inflation, level funding translates into a 20 percent cut over the last 12 years . Federal dollars underwrite a third of all medical research in the nation, but the number of research grants it can underwrite today – for treatments and cures – has decreased substantially over that period. All the while, our aging population and higher health costs become increasingly burdensome.
Gingrich says that he, as a conservative who is often skeptical of government investments, is convinced of the importance of this particular investment. Health care is the largest item in the federal budget. I agree with him that it is “irresponsible and shortsighted, not prudent, to let financing for basic research dwindle” and lose an opportunity for medical advances to improve quality of life and cut costs in the bargain. Poised as we are on the verge of breakthrough discoveries on dementia and Alzheimer’s (costs of care, he says, expected to exceed $20 trillion over the next four decades), it would be penny-wise and pound-foolish not to push for a cure – for this and other diseases from diabetes to cancer and heart disease – that cost in human suffering and also dollars.
There are a few bipartisan efforts in Congress to increase health research funding. But is that bipartisanship doomed by early onset electioneering? Will this more enlightened perspective get some traction in the Republican primaries, or will the slash-and-burn candidates prevail? It’s deeply gratifying to see Gingrich stepping out in front on this one. I can only hope he’ll stick with the issue and have some impact on the election debate.
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