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.

 

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496