Gingrich and Booker Dragged Into a Conversation They Cant Hold

Terrance Heath

This strange political season gets stranger by the day. The things I’m hearing and seeing from Newt Gingrich and Cory Booker today reminded me of a song from one of the last (and, in my opinion, underrated) albums by Culture Club; my favorite band from my 80’s youth. The lyric that comes to mind is from the band’s 1984 single, “Mistake No. 3,” when Boy George sings of people getting “dragged into a conversation they can’t hold.”

It’s been 28 years, and I still can’t figure out what that song’s about. But, it’s not hard to figure out that, despite coming at Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital history from opposite sides, Newt Gingrich and Booker let themselves get dragged into conversations they can’t hold.

What got me humming that old Culture Club tune again was Newt’s advice to the Obama campaign, not to make the same “mistake” he made when he went after Romney’s Bain history.

During an appearance on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight,” the former House Speaker and GOP presidential candidate discussed the political fallout from Newark mayor Cory Booker’s comments on Sunday’s “Meet The Press.” During that interview, Booker characterized Obama’s attacks on Romney’s business record as “nauseating,” but later walked back his remarks and asserted that criticism of Romney’s time at Bain is fair game.

“Booker is telling the truth about how the American people feel,” Gingrich, who backed Romney after ending his own presidential bid earlier this month, said on Monday.

Speaking somewhat candidly about his own campaign’s failures, Gingrich said he was “surprised” that Obama had taken the Bain Capital route after witnessing the backlash that met the former speaker when he went down a similar path.

“We found out when we got in a fight with Mitt Romney over this that it didn’t work,” he said. “People understand free enterprise. People realize that sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail, but they refuse to take a one-sided view of it.”

As we used to say down south, “Well, bless his heart.”

Like a stopped clock, even Newt Gingrich can be right now and then. (Like when he nailed Paul Ryan’s plan for Medicare and the so-called “super committee.”) But in this case, Newt’s dead wrong about what he got wrong.  

The “backlash” Newt experienced was not because of “how the American people feel” about private equity. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in January of this year showed that economic inequality is a major concern for most Americans; 66% believe there are “strong” or “very strong” conflicts between rich and poor. The findings on public perceptions of the wealthy showed that Americans were almost equally split on their perceptions of the wealthy, with plurality (46%) believing that the rich are wealthy because “are wealthy mainly because they know the right people or were born into wealthy families,” as opposed to their own hard work, ambition or education” (43%).  

The backlash Newt experienced, and that caused him to try to take it all back, came from conservatives who were furious that Newt was damaging their “inevitable” front runner before the primaries were anywhere near over, and outraged that Newt stirred up a perfect storm that threatened to drag the GOP itself into a conversation it couldn’t hold.

The problem for Newt and the rest of the Republicans is that they can’t blame the fact that more Americans see economic inequality as a problem at president Obama’s feet. The Occupy movement can be credited with pushing the issue to the forefront of our national politics, but that happened largely because of economic conditions that add up to three decades of stagnant wages and increased costs of living for middle- and working-class Americans, just barely covered by cheap credit that allowed families to simulate increased living standards, until the economic crisis brought the whole house of cards tumbling down.

That’s what makes it “impossible” for Republicans to talk about the kind economic inequality that Bain and other vulture capital firms leave in their wake, as a part of just doing business.

Newt has, basically, created the perfect storm for Republicans going into the South Carolina primaries, with Mitt Romney — the Man from Bain, who still smells like a Wall Street boardroom, and probably now looks more than ever to South Carolina primary voters “like the guy who laid you off.” Newt has forced the Republicans into a conversation they can’t hold, and aren’t even remotely prepared for.

The funny part is that Newt every thought they could avoid it, and that Republicans still think they can avoid it.

Cory Booker’s mistake was, oddly enough, both different from and similar to Gingrich’s mistake.

Both ran afoul of their parties when they strayed too far off message; Newt with his Bain attacks, and Booker with his Bain defense. Newt elevated what turned out to be a relevant topic that neither he nor his party was truly prepared to address. Booker, on the other hand, turned about and dismissed as “crap” the very same issue, which his president and his party are presently addressing.

Both, handed their opposition material tailor-made for scathing attacks. The Obama campaign now has its own Bain ads. Republicans have launched an “I Stand With Cory” web campaign.

Both tried to “walk it back.” Gingrich later backed down from his Bain attacks, and asked everyone to stop talking bout economic inequality. Faced with his own backlash, Booker took to YouTube to and Rachel Maddow’s show, to attempt to repair some damage. Apparently, it suddenly dawned on him that Romney’s Bain experience is fair game, since Romney’s touted his financial sector resume as his main qualification for the presidency.

Booker’s problem is he laid bare a problem that a number of his fellow Democrats share. In Booker’s case, the conflict is partly between his relationship with the Obama campaign, and his own relationship with private equity. Ambition factors in, too. Folks back in Newark weren’t terribly surprised at Booker’s defense of private equity, given that “he’s someone whose been courting big money ever since he first ran for office.”

Wall Street money helped fuel Booker’s rise in New Jersey politics, and if rumors of Booker’s ambitions to hold national office are true he’ll need even more Wall Street money. That makes him no different than a lot of Democrats, including the President.

But, as I pointed out this morning, if Gingrich and Booker got themselves dragged into a conversation they cant hold, President Obama is carrying the conversation (with an assist from Vice President Biden).

… [T]he reason this is relevant to the campaign is because my opponent, Governor Romney, his main calling card for why he thinks he should be President is his business expertise. He is not going out there touting his experience in Massachusetts. He is saying, I’m a business guy and I know how to fix it, and this is his business.

And when you’re President, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot. Your job is to think about those workers who got laid off and how are we paying for their retraining. Your job is to think about how those communities can start creating new clusters so that they can attract new businesses. Your job as President is to think about how do we set up a equitable tax system so that everybody is paying their fair share that allows us then to invest in science and technology and infrastructure, all of which are going to help us grow.

And so, if your main argument for how to grow the economy is I knew how to make a lot of money for investors, then you’re missing what this job is about. It doesn’t mean you weren’t good at private equity, but that’s not what my job is as President. My job is to take into account everybody, not just some. My job is to make sure that the country is growing not just now, but 10 years from now and 20 years from now.

So to repeat, this is not a distraction. This is what this campaign is going to be about — is what is a strategy for us to move this country forward in a way where everybody can succeed? And that means I’ve got to think about those workers in that video just as much as I’m thinking about folks who have been much more successful.

Gingrich tried to start the conversation, and Booker tried to steer it in a different direction. Mitt Romney doesn’t want to talk about it, or much else for that matter. Probably no one in national politics can have this conversation, with out stepping neck-deep into their own conflicts of interest. (That’s probably why not many elected officials will “go there.” On the map of American politics, that area is clearly labeled “Here Be Dragons.”)

But it’s a conversation America desperately needs to have. Here’s President Obama can lead that conversation. It sounds like he’s at least moving in the right direction.

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