Newt Gingrich, who greatly advanced the cause of reducing the scope of government when he was the Republican Speaker of the House in the 1990s, was on the opinion pages of the New York Times this week, calling for a doubling of the budget for the National Institutes of Health.
He tries to reassure tea partiers that he hasn’t gone soft: “As a conservative myself, I’m often skeptical of government ‘investments.’ But when it comes to breakthroughs that could cure—not just treat—the most expensive diseases, government is unique. It alone can bring the necessary resources to bear.” Arguing that government is going to be on the hook for the care of people with Alzheimer’s and other diseases anyway, Gingrich says, “It’s irresponsible and shortsighted, not prudent, to let financing for basic research dwindle.”
Gingrich writes that NIH funding should be a bipartisan issue, and he has a history of going bipartisan during the periods when he seems unlikely to ever again run for office. In 2008, he appeared with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an ad urging a response to climate change, something he renounced when he ran for president a few years later and accepted the GOP orthodoxy against a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Because of his zig-zags between bipartisan pragmatism and hard-line Republicanism, advocates of medical research may be reluctant to count on Gingrich as an advocate.
Trying to cure disease seems to be a no-brainer political position, but the temptation to ridicule government-funded research is often irresistible. John McCain—who, even more than Gingrich, has a history of flirting with bipartisan practicality—attacked government scientists for wasting money when he ran for president in 2008, saying that the study of DNA in grizzly bears was “unbelievable.” His running mate, Sarah Palin, went further, making fun of government-funded “projects having little or nothing to do with the public good—things like fruit fly research in Paris, France.” This is precisely the kind of contempt for science (fruit flies are, in face, quite useful in the study of genetics and disease) that makes any championing of a war on disease seem hollow.
In his New York Times piece, Gingrich does not call out politicians who take cheap shots at scientists, nor does he take a sentence or two to caution that medical research, by necessity, involves dead ends and studies that seem silly to the general public. He doesn’t acknowledge that the tendency to label any program with a long name as “pork” is one reason that, as he notes, “since the end of the five-year effort that roughly doubled the N.I.H. budget by 2003, funding for the institutes has been flat. The N.I.H. budget (about $30 billion last year) has effectively been reduced by more than 20 percent since then.”
The day before Gingrich’s essay, the New York Times ran another piece that suggests we’ve come a long way since the bipartisan effort to fund the NIH in the 1990s. In “Rand Paul, Lukewarm Libertarian,” Reason magazine senior editor Brian Doherty frets that the Kentucky senator, now running for the Republican presidential nomination, is not sufficiently committed to the cause of limited government. “To Mr. Paul’s credit, he’s suggested slashing 20 percent from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shrinking the National Science Foundation by 62 percent, and taking a 25 percent chunk out of NASA, among other cuts,” writes Doherty. “But such cuts are vulnerable to endless, piecemeal tinkering that will lead only to more out-of-control spending. Instead, Mr. Paul should consistently advance the core libertarian notion that some things just aren’t an appropriate function of the government at all.”
Yes, merely “slashing” the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the sign of a squish!
The idea that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not an appropriate function of government is not going to get any traction in a general election, but it has a hold on the smaller group of caucus-goers and campaign contributors who will influence next year’s GOP presidential nominee—almost certainly not by putting Rand Paul on the ticket, but by pressuring Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or the eventual winner to make concessions to the “drown government in the bathtub” wing of the party. It’s nice that Newt Gingrich has good things to say about the National Institutes of Health in a newspaper considered by many to be a left-wing propaganda outlet, but he’d make more difference by donating one speaking fee to the Alzheimer’s Association.