May 1, 2012 – Newt Gingrich is an American tragedy, a capacity and a potential wasted. The failed candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination would be appalled to think of himself in these terms, but his inability to see his own flaws is at the root of the tragedy.
Newt has had an incredible political career. Elected to the House in 1978, in 1983 he founded the Conservative Opportunity Society with other House members to promote public policies that would remove government barriers to opportunities for lower-income individuals so they could realize the American Dream. As House minority whip he worked to defeat Hillarycare and other attempts by President Bill Clinton to expand government.
At that time I was an economist for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and worked with Gingrich’s office as he worked constructively with the administration to pass the North American Free Trade Act.
During the early ‘90s Newt and the Republican group GOPAC were promoting a videotaped lecture course that the former university professor had developed on Renewing American Civilization. I viewed those lectures and found them to be high-quality fare. Titles included “Entrepreneurial Free Enterprise,” “The Spirit of Invention and Discovery,” and “Economic Growth.” The course contained examples of individuals who started businesses or developed innovations in the face of personal obstacles or skepticism from others.
In 1994, with fellow Republican leaders like Dick Armey and Tom Delay, Newt devised the Contract With America, a ten-point program that he and fellow House members pledged to put to a vote within 90 days if the GOP gained control of Congress in that year’s election. The plan was meant to create economic opportunity and rein in out-of-control government. (I worked on the property rights and deregulation planks.)
When the Republicans then won control of the House for the first time since 1952, Newt became Speaker. Under Gingrich, Republicans pushed through welfare reform, with Clinton signing the bill, and they slowed the growth of spending.
But Gingrich faced a revolt among his own Republicans because of his erratic style of leadership. Eventually he resigned because of ethics charges concerning, among other things, the funding of those Renewing American Civilization lectures.
Gingrich is a very smart guy, and he clearly loves innovative ideas and policies. One of his favorite admonitions is “Think outside the box!” Some of his ideas are good and some are not. Honest individuals can discuss their merits.
But what has done Newt in is not any given policy proposal but, rather, his pathological political pandering.
Newt’s pandering was an advertisement for his insincerity.
Often such pandering involved putting symbolism over substance. For example, after his stint as Speaker, Gingrich focused on coming up with short lists of policies to save America. Most proposals were standard free-market, limited government items meant to have some real impact. But he would also offer the anti-flag-burning sort of symbolism stuff. “Why? I asked him once. He answered that those items poll very well and that he wanted to be on the right side of those polls.
In his book Rediscovering God in America, Gingrich denounced “the secular Left’s attempt to drive God out of America’s public square.” He wrote, “For most Americans, the prospect of a ruthless secular society that would forbid public reference to God and systematically remove all religious symbols from the public square is horrifying.”
Gingrich failed to distinguish government from the private, civil society. Individuals are still free to go to church, synagogue, or mosque; to profess whatever beliefs they wish; to publish concerning their theology; to produce religious TV programs, radio shows, and movies; to place Christmas lights on their houses, stores, and places of worship. No individual’s freedom is being denied.
In his book Gingrich argued for the centrality of religion and Christianity in America’s founding. For example, he acknowledged that Thomas Jefferson was a deist, but then read the quotes on the walls of Jefferson’s memorial in which the third president mentioned God. But for Jefferson, “God” was an impersonal force that created the universe and then took no part in human affairs. Jefferson even urged us to use reason to “Question with boldness even the existence of God.”
America’s Founders sought to avoid the sectarian butchery and repression that had plagued Europe for centuries by keeping religion a private matter. Jefferson proclaimed a “wall of separation between church and state.” A treaty with Tripoli signed by John Adams stated that America “is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Adams also wrote that “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.” And he asked, “How has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?”
James Madison, architect of the Constitution, described the fruits of fifteen centuries of legally established Christianity as “pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
The point here is not to argue the validity of the respective theologies of the Founders and Gingrich. It is to say that as a history professor, Gingrich must have known that what he was saying about the Founders was simply not true. That is, he was pandering, hitting the religious hot-buttons of people rather than appealing to their reason.
Newt the panderer has blown with the political winds when he thought there was some short-term advantage to do so. In an infamous 2008 commercial, he sat on a sofa with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arguing that “our country must take action to address climate change.” It seems he thought that Democrats were in the ascendancy and he wanted to agree with their goals while offering his own solutions. That is, he was pandering. He dropped all mention of climate change during his presidential campaign.
Even as Newt was making excuses about his sofa summit, during the primaries he engaged in some of the most disgraceful pandering to what he took as populist elements among GOP voters.
He repeatedly attacked Mitt Romney, former head of Bain Capital, for being a “rich guy.” And one Gingrich attack ad used the language of the Left, to reveal “A story of greed,” of “Playing the system for a quick buck. A group of corporate raiders, led by Mitt Romney. More ruthless than Wall Street. For tens of thousands of Americans, the suffering began when Mitt Romney came to town.”
This sort of pandering was too much for most Republicans, and Newt, in the end, sank in the polls.
Surveys by both Rasmussen and Zogby find that young voters especially are turned off by the insincerity of all politicians, left and right, and are completely cynical about politics. Newt’s pandering was an advertisement for his insincerity. How can we believe anything he says when we know he’ll say anything? Rather than firing youth to “Think outside the box!” about their own potential and to vote for Newt, the guy with the great ideas, he simply validated their cynicism.
Further, such pandering devalued and diminished the sound ideas that he did have. A true leader would not treat citizens as idiots to be manipulated but, rather, as individuals with minds as well as hearts to be educated concerning the challenges that are facing the country and the best solutions for preserving individual liberty.
Gingrich, the smartest guy on the stage, did himself in. Politicians will continue to pander and get away with it, at least for a while. But let’s hope that a few will take Newt’s fate as an object lesson for what’s wrong with politics and choose the road of integrity instead.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.