[NOTE: Please make sure you watch the video at the end of the post.]
It’s reported that Newt Gingrich is preparing a new and “brutal” anti-Romney ad. Part of it is alleged to go something like this:
“Romney said he has always voted Republican when he had the opportunity.”
“But in the 1992 Massachusetts Primary Romney had the chance to vote for George H.W. Bush or Pat Buchanan, but he voted for a liberal Democrat instead.”
Actually, Romney didn’t say that. What he said was this:
ROMNEY: Just a — just a short clarification. I — I’ve never voted for a Democrat when there was a Republican on the ballot. And — and in my state of Massachusetts, you could register as an independent and go vote in which — either primary happens to be very interesting. And any chance I got to vote against Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, I took. And so I — I’m…[APPLAUSE}...I have voted -- I have always voted for a Republican any time there was a Republican on the ballot.
What's more, if we want to get really really technical about it (and hey, why not?), there's this:
When Romney walked into the polling place and was handed a Democratic ballot, it’s true that there was no Republican on it. The Republican ballot was separate. So, by this interpretation, Romney is correct that there was no "Republican on the ballot" that day.
That "liberal Democrat" that Gingrich is talking about was Paul Tsongas, by the way. But more about that later.
As you political junkies probably already know, it's a not uncommon practice in states with open primaries (where Independents can vote for either party), for fairly partisan people to still register as Independents in order to be able to vote in one primary or another for strategic reasons. By the time the 1992 Massachusetts primary rolled around (it's usually some time in March), George H.W. Bush was almost undoubtedly going to be the Republican nominee, despite some early challenges from Buchanan. Incumbent President Bush won every single primary handily that year: "Buchanan's campaign never attracted serious opposition to President Bush" after the very first primary in NH, which was a distant memory by the time Massachusetts had its turn. Although it is technically correct that Romney could have voted for Bush, such a vote would have been essentially meaningless.
So if Romney voted for Tsongas, as he himself has long admitted, could the meaning of his remark during the debate not just be that he voted for a Republican whenever one was on the ballot versus a Democrat? Otherwise, it's really a tiny and almost meaningless point; for example, I doubt that Romney meant to say he voted in every Republican primary even if the Republican was running completely uncontested!
Romney offered more on the subject in an interview back in 2007:
When there was no real contest in the Republican primary, I'd vote in the Democrat primary, vote for the person who I thought would be the weakest opponent for Republican. In the general election...I don't recall ever once voting for anyone other than a Republican. So, yeah, as an independent, I'll go in and play in their primary, but I'm a Republican and have been through my life. I was with Young Republicans when I was in college back at Stanford. But a registered independent, so I could vote in either primary.
This whole discussion is kind of like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, isn't it? So you might ask, why do I (neo-neocon, that is) care about such minutiae? Well, I'm always interested in fact-checking and the history behind the sound bite. But in this case I have an extra interest because the topic is Paul Tsongas, a politician I deeply admired, and whose failure to win the Democratic nomination in 1992 was a bitter disappointment to me.
So, as Lloyd Bentson might say, I remember Paul Tsongas, and if Gingrich does run an ad saying that Tsongas was a "liberal Democrat," that is in itself a misrepresentation. The nicest thing you could possibly call it would be to characterize it as a purposely misleading half-truth.
Whether or not Gingrich ends up running the ad, he's said as much already anyway:
...[Romney] voted in the Democratic primary for [Massachusetts'] Paul Tsongas, who was the most liberal person…
If I were given to hyperbole, I’d even say that Gingrich was lying there. But let’s just say that he’s quite mistaken about Paul Tsongas because Paul Tsongas was more conservative than Bill Clinton, the eventual winner. Another person who appeared to have been on that Massachusetts ballot in 1992 was Jerry Brown, certainly not more conservative than Paul Tsongas. In fact, Tsongas was probably the most conservative person in the race that year, at least fiscally.
And I must submit that if I know this about Tsongas, we can safely assume that Newt Gingrich the historian (and political figure in 1992) ought to know it too. While it’s certainly true that Tsongas was a Democrat, and socially liberal (at least by today’s standards), he ran as a pro-business fiscal conservative in 1992 and had long been known for that stance. But don’t take my word for it; read this:
Tsongas was criticized on occasion by opponents as a Reaganomics-style politician, and as being closer to Republicans with regard to such issues.
In a tribute I wrote to Paul Tsongas last summer, I ended with this sentence, “But if [Tsongas] were around today, he’s probably the only Democrat I’d consider voting for again—although I’m not so sure he’d be allowed in the Democratic Party any more.” That’s how conservative the guy was.
So, who’s the greater liar here? You be the judge.
In closing, I’m going to post a video of a talk that that flaming liberal Paul Tsongas gave in 1993, after he lost the 1992 primary race to Clinton, and after Clinton had won the presidency. The election he refers to is the presidential contest of 1992. I don’t know about you, but by the end of this clip I had tears in my eyes:
RIP, Paul Tsongas.