[Posted by Karl]
Newt Gingrich is currently having a good run, getting kind words from sources as far apart as New Hampshire’s Union Leader and fmr. Pres. Bill Clinton. Accordingly, he probably won’t notice if I offer a few words of criticism on the way to discussing an issue he clearly finds important.
Given that Clinton wanted to run for reelection in 1996 against the Dole-Gingrich ticket — and spent a fair amount of money linking Dole to Gingrich — the former Speaker and his supporters might consider that Clinton’s latest praise may have a tinge of mischief. Clitnon may well hope that Obama gets the chance to actually run against Newt, while Clinton had to make do with the illusion.
And why not? TIME and Newsweek made sure to introduce the last generation of voters to Newt as The Gingrich Who Stole Christmas and Uncle Scrooge for his positive comments about orphanages. After all these years out of power, Newt still has a habit of making comments easily caricatured as Dickensian.
Indeed, Newt’s characterization of child-labor laws as “truly stupid” caused NRO’s Kevin D. Williamson to neologize: “newt, [noot; nyoot] v., to put one’s foot in it while putting one’s finger on it.” I would suggest Newt made two errors here. Even if our child labor laws are stupid, they are not the most problematic barrier in our current economic stagnation, which extends well beyong the young. Even minimum wage laws are probably a bigger problem in the current context, though suggesting they be reformed or repealed would be just as easy a target for Dickensian caricature.
Of course, Newt was thinking more about the big picture, as he often does, but Newt is a problematic as a candidate at that level as well. As Williamson implies, the work ethic is as much an issue of values as policy:
Gingrich was right to say that the real value of a first job isn’t the money one earns but the lessons one learns: how to show up on time, how to be honest, how to be dependable, how to take direction, how to separate one’s personal life from one’s professional obligations, etc. Having fewer 16-year-olds working as part-time janitors does not mean that you will have proportionally more of them fine-tuning their Harvard admission essays. Having more 16-year-olds working as part-time janitors does not mean that we will have proportionally fewer rocket scientists and Ezra Pound scholars down the road. Most of our young people aren’t headed down that route.
One of the most dangerous and destructive tendencies in American public life is the upper class’s habit of generalizing its own desires, tastes, approaches, and interests onto the body politic at large. Thus did (for example) Governor Reagan help transmit the Hollywood elite’s culture of at-will divorce to the middle and lower classes. Unlike the rich and famous, the women and children of the middle and lower classes are not protected by vast amounts of money and social capital, and therefore were poorly positioned to endure the havoc that no-fault divorce wrought upon American family life, a development from which the nation probably never will recover. (Oops.) Our elites seem to be imagination-challenged, and they can never quite realize that other people are making their life choices while consulting a very different menu of options. This class blindness is the source of Karl Rove’s sputtering horror at the idea of his children “picking tomatoes.” It is also the source of Barack Obama’s managerial liberalism, which implicitly holds that if the poor ignorant wretches in the non-elite classes would only make the same life decisions as Barack and Michelle Obama, then they would get (roughly) the same outcomes. But that is not the case.
It is fairly easy to conclude that Gingrich would have some difficulty running on a family values platform, but let’s stay focused on the work ethic. Newt might be a more credible messenger on this issue than, say, Mitt Romney, who would likely be Obama’s preferred opponent for a campaign based on class warfare. However, I do not think it off-base to suggest that if you asked a random sample to describe Newt in a word, adjectives like “warm” and “cuddly” would not come up much. Fairly or not, people do not mistake him for Father Flanagan. The US still believes more in self-determination than people in Germany, Spain, Britain or France., but Newt is far from the ideal messenger on this issue.
Indeed, to come full circle, consider Gingrich’s signature achievement is making Bill Clinton sign welfare reform into law. That was largely possible because Clinton himself had campaigned on the issue. The position did not hurt Clinton much politically because, for all of his own character baggage, no one could really challenge his work ethic (albeit a Blue one) and his rise from modest circumstances. Without Clinton, Newt might be easily caricatured as the candidate of orphanages and (now) workhouses.