Food fight at Tiffany's

Newt Gingrich has come under fire from conservatives for his remarks  about Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan, and deservedly so; even Gingrich acknowledged as much by apologizing to Ryan yesterday.  A Presidential candidate can expect to take heat for controversial remarks on policy (or anything else) and to spend a few days doing damage control, and it’s perfectly legitimate for voters to blast and/or reject a candidate for positions and remarks.  In fact, I doubt Gingrich would argue about that.

But criticizing Gingrich about a bill at Tiffany’s?

Newt Gingrich, a fiscal conservative? Not when it comes to Tiffany’s.

In 2005 and 2006, the former House speaker turned presidential candidate carried as much as $500,000 in debt to the premier jewelry company, according to financial disclosures filed with the Clerk of the House of Representatives.

Gingrich, who represented Georgia in Congress for two decades, retired in 1999. But his wife, Callista Gingrich, was employed by the House Agriculture Committee until 2007, according to public records. She listed a “revolving charge account” at Tiffany and Company in the liability section of her personal financial disclosure form for two consecutive years and indicated that it was her spouse’s debt. The liability was reported in the range of $250,001 to $500,000.

When asked by POLITICO whether Gingrich has settled this debt, and why he owed between a quarter-million and a half-million dollars to a jeweler, Rick Tyler, Gingrich’s spokesman, declined to comment.

How exactly is this dispositive to Gingrich’s fiscal conservatism, at least as it relates to public policy?  It’s his money, not taxpayer funds.  If he chooses to spend between a quarter-million and half-million dollars of his own money on jewelry, well, that’s his business and none of ours.  Now, if Newt was running on a platform that included class-warfare arguments against the wealthy and some sort of odd anti-jewelry platform, then there might be a good argument for hypocrisy.  But he hasn’t, and so there isn’t.

If Gingrich had to declare bankruptcy to avoid paying the debt, that also would be fair game.  However, Gingrich hasn’t done so, despite the assumptions made by pundits like Jonathan Capehart at the Washington Post:

What on earth did he buy? Look, I have had one of those cards for almost 20 years. But I have been a little afraid to use it much for fear of one day having to live out of one of those blue boxes because of an inability to meet the monthly payments. On the rare occasions I do use it, the bill is paid in full. Wait, that would make me something of a fiscal conservative. Would that Gingrich could continue to make the same claim.

Five years ago, the account had an outstanding balance.  Does it today?  No one knows, apparently, mainly because it’s no one’s business.  I suspect that if Gingrich hadn’t been making the payments, Tiffany’s would not have hesitated to file legal action to get perhaps a half-million dollars in arrears from anyone, including the Gingriches.  So it seems more than just a little presumptuous to assume that Gingrich can’t claim to have honored his commitments or to have limited his spending to what he and his wife could afford.

Jim Geraghty notes in his Morning Jolt that the lack of preparation for this issue might cause a lack of confidence in Newt as a candidate:

It would make it particularly challenging for Gingrich to be the standard-bearer for the party that wants to reign in runaway spending and control the debt, no? And while having a massive debt to a luxury company is politically problematic, the fact that Team Gingrich doesn’t appear to have been prepared for that inquiry at all is vaporizing those last few molecules of reassurance that he and the folks around him are up to the arduous task of a winning campaign.

Well … maybe.  I’d guess that the campaign didn’t think an old report of a balance on a credit card would warrant this much attention, and in that they appear to have guessed wrong.  But there’s a deep and substantive difference between spending one’s own money and spending that of other people.  From all reports, the Obamas weren’t ostentatious personal spenders; how has their personal fiscal policy related to their public fiscal policy?  Ronald Reagan owned a ranch in Santa Barbara that cost a hell of a lot more than $250,000 (they spent more than twice that amount in 1974 to buy it, which would be more than $2 million in today’s dollars), but as I recall, he was sort of OK on fiscal policy, at least to Republicans.

There is plenty to debate about Gingrich’s campaign and political positions without second-guessing his jewelry purchases from six years ago.  As scandals go, this one’s hardly platinum; it looks more like Home Shopping Network cubic zirconia to me.