Newt said crazy things about Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan; Republicans freaked out. We have three theories to explain the piling on. Two are reasonable; one, in my view, is highly unlikely. The unlikely one, which Democrats are (sensibly) pushing and that Greg Sargent endorsed this morning: the Ryan Medicare plan, or more properly the House Republican Medicare plan, is now a litmus test that all true Republicans must endorse. I believe that’s wrong; I think Republicans are free to oppose Ryan, as long as they do it carefully. So why did Newt cause a riot?

Reasonable theory #1 is that it was the way Newt attacked the Medicare plan. Suppose he had said that Ryan was courageous and serious, unlike Barack Obama, and that the Ryan plan was one reasonable option, but that Newt favors…and at that point, he could have filled in the blank in lots of ways, including meaningless rhetoric. Instead, by using language that everyone agrees will turn up in Democratic attack ads, he left Republicans little choice but to fight back. (See, for example, Ross Douthat’s summary of the flap).

Reasonable theory #2 was written up well by Steve Kornacki yesterday: Republicans have no use for Newt Gingrich, and have just been waiting for an opportunity to let him — and each other — know that for sure.

I believe both of these are exactly right. Of course, House Republicans deserve to get tarred with their VoucherCare plan, since they voted for it — and, overall, I think it’s completely reasonable for Democrats to attack Republicans over their intentions about Medicare. But I really don’t think that Paul Ryan’s plan is actually a litmus test for Republicans in 2012, as long as candidates are sensible about how they avoid endorsing it, and I certainly don’t think that’s what’s happened to Newt over the last few days. That’s why I decided from the start not to take Newt’s campaign seriously — the guy is just a total fraud, and anyone who didn’t remember it from the 1990s was bound to learn it soon enough.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.