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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.