Democrats are salivating — or as Rachel Maddow put it — cheering, screaming, crying — at the prospect of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich becoming the Republican presidential nominee.
And why not? Gingrich, conservative George Will writes, “embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive.” The surly charlatan is pompous, bumptious, and disingenuous in successive sentences. He is without shame, bestirring Times columnist Maureen Dowd to tick off examples: “a serial adulterer while impeaching another serial adulterer, a lobbyist for Freddie Mac while attacking Freddie Mac.” He launched his campaign by retiring 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. And he punctuated the rebirth of his candidacy by scorning “child labor laws” as “truly stupid.” Many of his former colleagues in the House agree with Morning Joe Scarborough that Gingrich is “not fit to be President of the United States.”
But Democrats should be wary about what they wish for. Newt blows himself up repeatedly — but he has a powerful argument he will wield against Obama. Gingrich will run the Clinton economy against the Bush-Obama economy. The “bipartisan” progress of the 1990s against the brutal partisan gridlock of the current time. The 22 million new jobs under Gingrich-Clinton (as Newt no doubt will describe it) with the faltering recovery and 25 million people in need of full-time work under Bush-Obama. It would be the final irony: Newt Gingrich, the man who tried to impeach Clinton, delivering Hillary and Bill’s revenge.
In his recent book, Back to Work, former president Bill Clinton supplies the lines that Gingrich will steal. Clinton indicts conservatives for their “30 year anti-government obsession.” But, not surprisingly, he suggests his eight years in office represented something different.
“We pursued that agenda [to ‘prepare America’ for the twenty-first century] while keeping taxes under 20 percent of GDP and spending under 19 percent.”
During my administration we had four surplus budgets and began to pay down the national debt; we cut taxes on the middle class, working families of modest means and income from capital gains; we reduced welfare rolls … we reduced the size of the federal workforce to its lowest levels since 1960 when Dwight Eisenhower was president… and the economy produced more jobs and moved a hundred times more people out of poverty than in the Reagan years…
As Speaker of the House from 1994 to 1998, Gingrich lays claim to the same accomplishments for his Republican Congress. And at a time when Americans are sick of partisan gridlock and bickering, he can point to his history of bipartisan production. “The kind of speaker that he was, was one that was willing to be a consensus builder,” says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “He worked with Clinton. He was a person who got a lot accomplished with the president — the balanced budget, for the first time since 1969; the 100,000 cops bill; welfare reform; and a variety of other things.” “We can make an honest, legitimate claim that this is the most significant Congress in a generation,” said Gingrich, “and you have to go back to Lyndon Johnson’s 1965-66 efforts to see a comparable scale of change.”
And even as he boasts of the record of the economy on his watch as Speaker, Gingrich savages the “failed stimulus” as “the Bush-Obama big spending program.”
Last year , the Bush Obama plan had a $180 billion stimulus package in the spring which failed. It came back with a $345 billion housing package in the summer which failed. It then had a $700 billion Wall Street bailout in October which failed. It had a $4 trillion-dollar Federal Reserve guaranty which failed. The Bush-Obama plan was continued. We didn’t get real change. …We got big spending under Bush, now we have big spending under Obama, and so we have two new failures.
While Mitt Romney is most comfortable indicting Obama for bad management and Perry flounders in the sea of ideas, Newt feeds up raw meat for conservatives in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, combining city on the hill economic homilies with back alley racial allusions. Consider Gingrich’s calling card at the beginning of his campaign:
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 has toned down his invective for the campaign; in his 2010 book, To Save America, he denounced Obama as leading a “secular socialist machine” based on “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior.”
The barely coded racism of the food stamp crack echoes Reagan’s “welfare queen” stories. But note the frame. All of Washington has been 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 has spent months wrestling with Republicans about cuts and deficits. But for Gingrich, the deficit is simply a measure of a bad economy. He will indict Obama for the failed recovery, based on the failed Bush-Obama stimulus plans.
And Gingrich will lay out a big choice. As he put it, heading into the 2010 congressional campaign:
They [Democrats] have shared openly and honestly with us their vision of higher taxes, bigger government, more bureaucracy, greater corruption, more political power by people unworthy of doing it, and a policy which will kill jobs, cripple the economy, trap children in schools that are disasters and weaken America’s future. They have every right to have that vision and we have every right to go to the polls and defeat it. We should have as a goal 435 campaigns in this country of people dedicated to representative government, to lower taxes, to less power in Washington and to taking back from the bureaucracy the power it can’t possibly use over the American economy.
Newt’s patter, of course, ignores most of his more sordid reality. As a legislator, he wasn’t a builder of consensus; he introduced the current bare knuckle partisanship, practicing the poisonous politics of personal attack. He rose by leveling corruption charges on Democratic House Speaker James Wright for a book deal (even while he had cut his own shady book deal, and was later fined for other ethics violations). He pushed the government to a shutdown in a budgetary standoff. He sought to impeach Clinton, not cooperate with him. And with his colleague Tom DeLay and the K Street project, Gingrich perfected the pay to play politics that leads George Will to dismiss him as a classic rental politician.
Moreover, the Clinton economic successes were built on the dot.com bubble, which burst at the end of his administration. Championing the trade policies of global corporations and deregulation of finance, privatization and more, the Clinton-Gingrich years contributed directly to the global imbalances, rising inequality and excessive financialization that eventually blew up the economy. By celebrating budget surplus rather than calling for rebuilding America, the Clinton-Gingrich years passed up a historic opportunity to change our course — which Bush then completely squandered with his tax cuts skewed to benefit the top.
Worse, for all of his inflated reputation as a font of ideas, Gingrich advocates the very same policies that drove us off the cliff. He’d roll back the regulation of the big banks, repeal health care leaving tens of millions unable to afford health care, continue ruinous trade policies, lower taxes on corporations and the wealthy adding to inequality, seek to privatize Social Security and Medicare, and demand harsh cuts in basic government services. In an unimaginable Gingrich presidency, his policies would be as ruinous as his temperament.
If Gingrich wins the nomination, exposing his hypocrisy, corruption, and double-talk will not suffice. The president will need to engage on the basic choices the country faces. That is why the mantra of not “litigating the past” is foolish. Democrats have to tell clearly the story of how we got into the hole we are in — and why we must change course to get out. And that’s why the talk about a short-term jobs boost is inadequate. Americans know the country is in serious trouble. They realize Obama inherited a mess. They are looking for a long-term strategy that will revive the American dream, and rebuild a strong middle class.
Early in his administration, Obama offered a clear choice, evoking biblical parable in contrasting the economy built on sand with that build on rock. The economy built on sand, begun under Reagan, with top end tax cuts, deregulation, the cult of the CEO, the myth that markets would police themselves that led to a frenzy of speculation, greed, corruption and the placing of bigger and bigger bets with more and more borrowed money until that economy collapsed on its own excess.
We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.
But, the president has largely abandoned this powerful theme, turning instead to premature deficit reduction and now to the need for a stimulus, rather than a fundamentally new strategy. Democrats like to draw the contrast between the prosperity of Bill Clinton and the calamity of George Bush. And it is here that Gingrich is so dangerous — for he will brandish the glitter of the Clinton-Gingrich years, and contrast them with the dross of the Bush and Obama record. Obama might be better served to face off against Mitt who stands for nothing, than Gingrich who flips flops as much as Romney, but will shamelessly meld Obama with Bush, while wrapping himself in the record of the man he sought to impeach.