The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Newt: The candidate America desperately needs

On the eve of the South Carolina primary--the kingmaker event that has for three decades successfully predicted the eventual Republican nominee for the Presidency of the United States--former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is riding high. 

Gingrich got a rare standing ovation earlier this week for his performance at a pre-primary debate; today, he got another.  Texas Governor and former rival Rick Perry dropped out of the race yesterday and gave him an endorsement.  On any topic where former Senator Rick Santorum sounds credible, Gingrich sounds more credible. 

And establishment frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts who has spent more than more years analyzing polls to try and convince voters that he has heartfelt conservative convictions and many millions of dollars to try and convince them that he is a working man, has seen his lead erode to the point that he and Gingrich are all but even.

It might go either way.  It could even go neither way, with Santorum somehow taking the vote.  (It won't go to Ron Paul, the most solidly principled man in the race; the honesty of his positions and his unwavering willingness to say the only true answers to the questions he is asked wins him more detractors than supporters.)

But I hope, I really hope, that it goes to Gingrich.  We need him on the ticket in 2012.

A Brief History of the Gingrich Campaign

Those watching the Republican primary process as outsiders are surely as astonished as I am by the way in which former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's bid for the Presidency resembles bungee jumping. 

After presiding over the most successful period of conservative ascendancy in modern history (more on this later), Speaker Gingrich was driven from the House in shame by fellow Republicans who couldn't stand his leadership style or his revolving-door approach to marriage.  Banished, he rehabilitated himself by marrying the woman who had been the object of his latest affair and set out to work behind the scenes as the GOP's "idea man," a role to which he was well suited.  In that capacity, he consulted, spoke, and churned out an impressive array of books and papers addressing the various problems in America and the solutions he had devised to tackle them.

Newt--his campaign finds it fashionable to call him by his first name, so I'll embrace that approach here--passed on the 2008 campaign in which Barack Obama defeated John McCain, but in 2011, he decided to throw his hat into the ring as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.  He was well funded by his own Newt, Inc. enterprise and generated a lot of enthusiasm.  UP!

Having announced his candidacy, Newt then promptly went on vacation.  His staff fled.  His campaign imploded.  And everyone wrote him off as never having been serious (ironic given that his collapse paralleled the rise of pizza tycoon Herman Cain, whose style was undeniable but whose sincerity as a candidate approached that of Donald Trump).  DOWN.

Next, Iowa.  As the famed Caucuses whose bizarre rituals have somehow been granted a prominent role in our electoral process loomed on the horizon, Herman Cain dropped out amidst charges of affairs and sexual harrassment.  Gingrich poured money into substanative advertising and gave intelligible debate answers.  His popularity soared, and he confidently declared that he would win the Hawkeye State.  UP!

Then the so-called "super PACs," political action committees funded by unlimited contributions from industry and trade interests in the wake of the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision two years ago, brought their guns to bear.  Romney's cronies crushed Gingrich under a wave of negative ads that the former Speaker was slow to match--despite having his own Super PAC, Gingrich had up to this point emphasized a positive campaign--and his numbers dropped like a stone.  DOWN.

Gingrich did not win Iowa.  He came in a disappointing fourth, ahead of floundering, clueless Rick Perry and voter-invisible Michele Bachmann but well below Romney, Paul, and Santorum.

Then came New Hampshire, where Paul chased Romney for the lead and third place went to now-eliminated Jon Huntsman (hands-down the best person being considered for the Presidency by either party, and thus dismissed as inadequate by hyper-partisan primary voters), with Gingrich nowhere to be found.  Definitely DOWN.

But not out.

The Gingrich Revival

Any way that one looks at it, it's impressive that Newt Gingrich has been able to emerge in the wake of New Hampshire with a campaign at all.  That he is a serious contender for the South Carolina primary is astonishing, and made all the more so by the recent revelation that missing votes would have made Santorum--not Romney, and certainly not Gingrich--the winner in Iowa.

Part of it is the Super PACs.  With unlimited money, they can afford to spend on a level that campaigns can't, because they can always raise more from the same donors (which the campaigns can't do because of campaign-finance restrictions).  Super-PAC contributions are not publically reported, so the super rich--polite society likes to call these folks "deep-pocketed donors," but let's be honest about it--can throw their cash into whichever coffers they like without the risk that they'll be given the cold shoulder should the other guy end up winning the nomination.

But there's more to it than that.

As I said earlier, Gingrich presided over the most successful period of conservative ascendancy in modern history.  His "Contract with America" captured the public imagination.  He grabbed onto the Reagan legacy and moved it down the field, and by engaging with Clinton's New Democrats in the forceful way that he did, he did far more than just advance a conservative agenda.  By the time that Gingrich left office--and many people then and now will concede that Clinton came out better for the exchange of blows--he had essentially restructured the entire political conversation.

Think about it.  Modern conservatism began as an intellectual rebuke to classical liberalism as it had been envisioned and advocated by John Meynard Keynes during the Great Depression.  Nixon threw the world into chaos when he embraced the floating-currency ideas of Milton Friedman and ended international convertability of dollars into gold.  Carter's attempts at stemming the mess did not work.  Reagan embraced the supply-side theories of people like Arthur Laffer and things turned around, but to Democrats, the value of government spending and deficits was accepted dogma--and they had been in majority control for decades.

Enter Gingrich and his Contract.  Republicans win control of the House.  A series of very tough battles with a strong President follow, including a bruising government shutdown.  There's Whitewater and the farce of the impeachment.  Gingrich resigned in 1998 under the dual pressures of poor election results and ethics allegations.  And then?

In 1999, Clinton signs the Financial Services Modernization Act, also known by the names of its sponsors as Gramm-Leach-Bliley.  That legislation, drafted by Republicans and signed by a Democrat, is what repealed the part of the Glass-Steagall Act that had for six decades separated commercial and investment banking.

And how about our trade deficit with China?  That comes from the October 10, 2000 signature by President Clinton of a bill that established Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China but pointedly did not include labor standards requirements that would have maintained an even playing field.

Newt, in other words, is not just a conservative.  He is the standard bearer of modern conservatism, all that it has done and all that it wants to do.  He is the one who successfully changed the entire Washington conversation from a debate between business and public interest to one that focused solely on how business interests should be given preference.

Democratic Dilemma

Republican policies of deregulation and tax reduction pursued at the same time that the United States waged two lengthy wars with expensive technology are responsible for both the massive U.S. national debt and the near-collapse of the global economy.  Unfortunately, because Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 (on account of broad disillusionment with those same Republican policies), Democrats were the ones who had to step in to bail out the economy when the crisis came in 2008.

Spending huge amounts of borrowed money to shore up industry and recapitalize banks is nothing new for traditional Keynesians, so this was not necessarily a role that Democrats disliked.  Republicans, however, were brilliant in their exploitation of American ignorance and short attention spans in spinning the bizarre and absurd notion that the economic collapse was primarily the fault of housing policies enacted in the Carter administration (1977-1981) and not the reckless, many-trillion-dollars casino bets of the deregulated financial institutions during the heydey of the Bush administration (2003-2008).

What's more is that Democrats, who by 2008 was entirely beholden to their Clinton-era recast narrative of business interests as supreme, failed to accompany their bailout with any of the sorts of restrictions that had defined similar actions in the Great Depression.  They spent more than a year wrangling over financial reform that ended up confusing, complicated, and expensive but did not reverse the disastrous mistake of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.  They created a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, not the Agency originally envisioned, and then failed to get a director appointed for more than two years.

Worst of all, they passed a stimulus package that at $770 billion was both eye-popping and too small to be truly effective, and shoveled the cash to private companies and tax cuts instead of the bold employment mechanisms and mortgage modifications that might have made real differences.

Democratic incompetence and cowardice, accompanied by three years of vacillation and pro-business meanderings by a President who has nonetheless been successfully branded as "the most anti-business President in U.S. history" by a Republican propaganda arm that by now is well aware that the American people have no sense whatsoever, has left us in a position where voters mistakenly think that these last three years have been textbook Keynesian actions and that it's now time to get "back" to deregulation and tax cuts as cure-alls for our ills.

Reckoning with the Right

For far too long now, conservatives have been able to pretend with straight faces that their peculiar mix of insistence on absolute freedom for businesses to abuse consumers and absolute government control over people's personal lives and relationships are the values on which America was founded, propsered, and continues to depend.

That their prescription for economic prosperity through exploitation and outsourcing was a lie should have been obvious in 2008, but it wasn't because there was no progressive choice.  There were only old-school liberals and pragmatic New Democrats in the Clintonian tradition, and the election of Barack Obama did nothing to change that: he left his signature healthcare law to be written by the liberals while staffing his cabinet with warmed-up Clinton leftovers.

Republicans, meanwhile, appear to be ascendant once more.  The Tea Party rose to prominence by demanding that in times of severe economic hardship, those who have should cling tightly while those who go without should be read carefully selected passages from the Bible and ridiculed for not working harder.  In recent months, we have even been slathered with blatantly absurd claims that anyone who is rich is a "job creator," as if one created jobs out of maganimity and the role of actual economic demand in supporting a created job were a minor point at best.

Ron Paul is not going to be the Republican nominee.  Loved by those who like him, he attracts no one who is not enthusaistically behind him, and his Constitutionalist view of military power doesn't play well with Cold-War conservatives who prefer selective readings of the Founding Fathers when it comes to standing armies.

Rick Santorum is definitely a conservative, but he's not a strong candidate outside of the far right.  His positions on social questions like homosexuality fire up his base and revile virtually everyone else.  Were he to get the nomination, he would lose out of hand.

And Mitt Romney?  Whatever his poll-based triangulation allows him to imply in the moment, he is not a conservative.  He may win, in which case he will pursue the agenda we'd all expect of an extension of Wall Street.  Or he might lose.  But either way, the disaster that follows will never belong to conservatives, because they will always be able to shrug and say that he was not one of them.  And the American people will by and large believe it.

And that is why this country truly, desperately needs Newt Gingrich as the Republican nominee in 2012.

A Strong Conservative Nominee

Newt Gingrich has flaws.  He can be condescending.  He has a lot of personal baggage in the form of three marriages, two of which began as affairs while he was still married to the preceding wife in the timeline.  Of his ideas, it has been frequently remarked by friends and detractors alike that there is a very large folder labeled "Newt's ideas" and a smaller one labeled "Newt's good ideas."

But Newt is also smart and articulate, with a strong debate style and a presence that fills a room.  There are few subjects about which he doesn't have at least something to say, and usually he knows more than the people he's addressing.

And about that baggage?  Well, when everyone already knows you've had affairs (including one while you were denegrating a sitting President of the United States for his lack of "family values"), asked your first wife for a divorce while she was being treated for cancer, and were under risk of removal from the House for ethics violations, it doesn't carry much weight against your popularity when your second wife (the one for whom you got that cancer-bed divorce before ditching her for the next one) accuses you of wanting an open marriage.

Presented with this sort of juicy gossip fluff, Newt can deny it, denounce her and the news media, and move on to substanative issues.  He can do it so well that he can force President Obama to do the same -- and he'll want to, because Newt is far more interested in besting Obama as a debater than he is in trying to sell voters on his family values.

All of this means one thing: a Presidential contest between Barack Obama and Newt Gingrich will be a limited-distractions, deep-content contest between ideologies.  Gingrich is a true conservative intellectual and will not be easily dismissed as a lunatic.  Obama will be forced to articulate his own actual positions as a progressive and not hide behind the meaningless moderation that had defined his current presidency (and definitely not the New Democrat antics that prevailed until six months ago).

Whoever wins, we need a clear mandate.  This country needs to stop meandering and decide where it really stands.  Conservatives need pull the plug on Mitt Romney's scripted performance and rally around someone who will do what he's promising.  That's Newt Gingrich.

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