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.

 

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad