Gingrich's influence will still be felt

The Republican's with-us-or-against-us rhetoric will endure.

Newt Gingrich is done. Well, he's been done. It just took a five-state primary smash by Mitt Romney to goad Gingrich into finally making it formal. The Republican nomination for president was in effect wrapped up Tuesday when Romney launched a major theme of his general election campaign. The Great Recession? Blame Obama.

While the shape and force of the Grand Old Party is different from when Gingrich was its chief ideologue, in many ways he helped create the current tenor of the party. He was the face of the 1994 Republican Revolution and he arrived in Washington on the strength of his core belief: Democrats are the enemy; it's time to get nasty. 
 
And they did. But Republican nastiness didn't stop with the impeachment of Bill Clinton. We saw it again in 2000 when George W. Bush, as a candidate, launched a whisper campaign against John McCain, alleging he'd fathered an illegitimate black daughter (the child in question was in fact adopted from a Bangladeshi orphanage run by Mother Theresa). Bush did it again in 2004 in the notorious Swift Boating of war hero John Kerry. And since the Barack Obama's election, congressional Republicans have obstructed every one of Obama's proposals, even those that are Republican in origin. Informally, conservatives have shown every kind of contempt that can he shown to a sitting president, from Joe Wilson's "You lie" to Jan Brewer's finger-in-Obama's-face to Joe Appaio's ham-fisted "investigation" into the forgery of the president's birth certificate.
 
We can thank Gingrich for much of that. In order to distract us from the GOP's real agenda -- serving the interests of the very, very rich -- Gingrich and his rhetorical heirs attack, attack, attack. It's a political strategy proven effective time and again.
 
There were reasons a-plenty to think Gingrich wasn't a serious candidate. For one thing, his temperament is best suited to a congressman, not a president. For another, he was disorganized and undisciplined. He lives in Virginia but couldn't get on that state's primary ballot. He and his wife went on a cruise in the middle of the campaign. He even promised as president to put a colony on the moon. Little wonder his campaign was fizzling out soon after Florida, his staffers quitting, debt piling up and checks starting to bounce. 
 
As I say, Gingrich's influence is still felt among rank-and-file Republicans, even as he plans to suspend his campaign next week. That influence can be seen in the with-us-or-against-us rhetoric that's ultimately damaging to the future needs of the Republican Party.
 
First, a little background. Many believe Hispanics are the key to the GOP's future. They are natural Republicans, they say, as unwilling as conservatives to accept newfangled social phenomena like abortion, gay marriage and gun control. This is bogus (polls suggest Hispanics are too pragmatic to be concerned with cultural outrage), but that's not the point. The point is Hispanics are unlikely to jump on the GOP bandwagon even if claims to their innate Republican-ness weren't bogus. The reason for that is people like Gingrich.
 
During the nomination, Gingrich once said child labour laws were stupid, and that poor children, who have no work ethic (obviously the reason for their poverty), could learn the dignity of work if able to perform janitorial work in their schools. This is textbook conservatism. Poverty is caused by bad culture, not bad public policies. Adjust your attitude and you escape poverty. Voila!
 
Informing Gingrich that this was fantastical was a young Hispanic man named Hector Cendejas. He told the former House Speaker in March that he was offended by his plan to put children to work.
 
"It was embarrassing to be a janitor at my own high school, because I was with the rich kids. I was poor. My mom was working super hard. I did not feel empowered by serving my classmates," said Cendejas, an alum of Georgetown University, where Gingrich was giving a talk.
 
Gingrich replied: "My daughters worked as janitors at the local Baptist Church ... and they didn't think it was demeaning."
 
"But they come from a wealthy family," Cendejas said. Gingrich is now a millionaire who enjoys a $500,000 credit line at Tiffany's. 
 
"That's not the point," Gingrich said. 
 
Oh, but it is. For Cendejas, working wasn't a lesson in dignity, character or self-determination. It was about survival. If there was a lesson learned, it was that the poor and vulnerable are most easily exploited by those in positions of wealth and power. 
 
But Gingrich can't or won't see this, because to do so would mean questioning the cultural assumptions that come with enjoying wealth and power, and the last thing a conservative wants to do is talk about concrete things like wealth and power. Much better to bring us back to culture, where the lines in the sand are more easily drawn. 
 
The GOP maintains a with-us-or-against-us rhetorical stance at its own peril. Romney could change that, but it's going to take a lot of work. Fortunately, he won't find it demeaning. 
 
John Stoehr is a lecturer in Political Science at Yale University.
Gingrich once promised to put a colony on the moon. Photo: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle