Gingrich Calamity Newt Asks the Right Question

Robert Borosage

Less than a week after launching his presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich’s candidacy has already been declared "done" and "over" by conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer. Gingrich’s mouth—always faster than his brain—has been gorging on his foot.

He’s provided Democrats with great ad copy, denouncing the Republican plan to end Medicare as "radical" and "right-wing social engineering." He managed an astounding 360 overnight, from having "consistently favored" an individual mandate on health care to calling it unconstitutional the next day. He’s received well-deserved scorn for dog-whistle, race-bait politics in declaring President Obama the "food-stamp president." And of course, in the run-up to his announcement, he retired the trophy for the most creative excuse for cheating on your wife, declaring that it was his passion for his country that led him astray.

Despite Gingrich’s gift for self-immolation, even with his own candidacy already sapped by the licentiousness of his mouth and his libido, he shouldn’t be dismissed. He has provided the clearest statement of how Republicans will run against Obama and Democrats in the next election—in the Reagan tradition, combining city-on-the-hill economic homilies with back-alley racial allusions. Consider Gingrich’s calling card:

"President Obama is the most successful food stamp president in American history. I would like to be the most successful paycheck president in American history."

"We’re at a crossroads. Down one road is a European centralized bureaucratic socialist welfare system in which politicians and bureaucrats define the future. Down the other road is a proud, solid, reaffirmation of American exceptionalism."

(Gingrich toned down his invective for the campaign, previously denouncing Obama as leading a "secular socialist machine" based on "Kenyan anti-colonial behavior.")

The barely coded racism of the food-stamp crack invokes Reagan’s "welfare queen" stories. But note the frame. All of Washington is mired in a debate about deficits and debt, about what to cut and when. Gingrich is arguing not about debt but about jobs—paychecks—and the economy. Obama will spend nine months wrestling with Republicans about cuts. But Republican presidential candidates won’t talk about deficits—they’ll indict Obama for the economy, the slow recovery and the lack of jobs.

In making his case, Gingrich ignores any discussion of Bush’s misrule, or the conservative policies that led up the Great Recession. Rather he focuses on the aftermath, describing Obama as a failure, attributing the slow recovery to his "big government" programs, and painting Republicans as the salvation.

Not surprisingly, Gingrich rolled out a nine-point jobs plan to detail what he would do to get the economy going. Despite his reputation as an ideas man, it is bereft of any new thought. Rather it is a rerun of the conservative homilies from the last 30 years—more tax cuts for corporations and the rich, roll back regulations including replacing the Environmental Protection Agency, repeal and replace Obama’s health care reforms, create an "American energy plan" (or "drill, baby, drill" in Gingrich’s old formulation), balance the budget by doing all of the above.

He also calls for "strengthening the dollar" by returning to Reagan-era monetary policies (presumably not referring to the Paul Volcker reign at the Fed that hiked interest rates to 20 percent in 1981, driving the economy into recession). And, naturally, he repeats the Republican threat to Social Security and Medicare, masked as "fundamental reform of entitlement programs with the advice and help of the American people."

One problem with all this: Been there, done that. These are the very policies America has followed over the last three decades of conservative domination of our politics:

  • Top-end tax cuts contributed to concentrated wealth not seen since before the Great Depression, with the wealthiest Americans already paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries.
  • Deregulation contributed to the explosion of the casino economy, not only Wall Street speculation but CEOs with multimillion dollar incentives to cook the books, sell off their companies or ship jobs abroad.
  • The strong-dollar multinational trade policy hollowed out American manufacturing, leaving us borrowing $2 billion a day from abroad.
  • Drill, baby, drill has left us dependent on a global oil market, shipping billions abroad even while contributing to catastrophic climate change that is a real and present danger.
  • Trying to privatize Social Security and end Medicare as we know it rather than taking on the insurance and drug companies has left us with a health care system that costs twice per capita as the rest of the industrialized world while producing worse results.

This is not an answer likely to appeal to any but the faithful. But Gingrich gets the question right. The question is not how to balance our books, which he treats in passing. The question is how to create an economy that works for working people, that puts people back to work, revives the middle class and puts the American Dream once more within reach for our children.

In his State of the Union address, Obama offered the beginnings of an alternative—saying that to win the future, we had to invest in education, 21st century infrastructure and innovation, arguing that we had to insure that we built the new sources of renewable energy from windmills to solar panels here at home. But his argument assumed a recovery that most Americans don’t feel and asserted an economy "poised for prosperity," which most Americans don’t share.

At the beginning of his administration, Obama argued convincingly that we could not go back to the old economy, built on bubbles and bust, with a declining middle class. He called for a "new foundation," including public investment in areas vital to our future, and capturing a lead in the new green industrial revolution. In different speeches, he argued for curbing Wall Street, balancing our trade, empowering workers to gain a fair share of the profits they helped to generate, reforming health care to make it affordable for all, insuring our children had the opportunity for the best public education in the world.

Much of that reform agenda has been blocked or diluted. Some was abandoned or shelved by the White House. Now the bold argument for a new course is seldom heard, except in Republican speeches scorning it as anti-American, "centralized, bureaucratic European socialism."

This is an argument that the president cannot and should not duck. The fact is America is at a crossroads. The conservative policies of the past decades—tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation for Wall Street and the CEOs, trade for the multinationals, policing the world, rolling back unions—have failed us. The wealthy are doing fine, but the vast majority of Americans are struggling. The middle class is sinking.

Gingrich is right. This election will be about how America goes forward, about what we will do to create an economy that works for most Americans. But the old history instructor is blind to America’s history. When we faced this crossroads before, after the Great Depression and World War II, we did not rely on the myth of untrammeled markets or trickle-down economics. We educated the generation that came back from the war, subsidized home ownership and built the suburbs. We built the interstate highway system. We converted wartime plants to peacetime production. The top tax rate was 90 percent. The Marshall Plan and other programs helped build markets for U.S. exports. Banks were shackled by New Deal regulations and went 50 years without a banking crisis. Unions represented over 30 percent of the workforce and helped lift wages across the economy. America’s debt was over 120 percent of GDP after World War II. We continued to borrow but we grew faster and the debt was down to about 33 percent of GDP in 1980 when Reagan started us down the road to ruin.

The American middle class was not inherited. It didn’t result from trickle-down tax cuts. It was built, by good policy and hard work from the bottom up. Americans are still willing to work hard—they labor longer hours than workers in any other industrial nation. Now we’ve got to get the policy right. Gingrich gets the question right but the answer wrong. We can’t go back to the policies that led us to the mess we are in. We must go another way

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