Newt's tea party
The former GOP speaker has latched onto the movement as the key to his
By Tim Rutten
EVER SINCE HE resigned his speakership and House seat in disgrace
nearly 12 years ago, Newt Gingrich has prowled the margins of
electoral politics like a wolf, hungry and opportunistic.
He's tried on a variety of ideas and ideological colorations in those
intervening years, but this week, with the publication of his new
book, "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine,"
he explicitly linked his fate to the "tea party" movement. Given the
fact that Gingrich has said he is weighing a presidential bid, it's a
safe bet that others, similarly ambitious, will carefully watch how he
Gingrich, a onetime history professor, always has had a fondness for
big ideas and checklist politics, as evinced in his famous Contract
with America. The overarching idea in his new book is that, "for the
first time since the Civil War, we as Americans have to ask the most
fundamental question possible: Who are we?" That existential dilemma,
the former Georgia congressman contends, has been forced by a
relentless and intricate conspiracy of "secular socialists" that
includes Democrats, big business, most of the academy and nearly all
of the media. "And that's why saving America is the fundamental
challenge of our time," Gingrich writes. "The secular-socialist
machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the
Soviet Union once did."
He argues: "In the 20th century, hundreds of millions of people were
killed by the totalitarian ideologies of Marxism, Nazism and fascism"
for whom "religion was enemy No. 1 and the first to go.... There are
many parallels between the anti-religious governments of the 20th
century and the anti-religious elite of the United States in the
That is absurd, of course, as is the notion that the Obama
administration has embraced a socialist economic program, but what's
significant in this kind of talk-show discourse is the evocation of
every theme sounded by the tea party movement.
Gingrich clearly thinks the political winds have shifted. Just last
fall, he recalled that Ronald Reagan worked with many people with whom
he disagreed, and he argued that anyone leading the effort to
recapture Congress and the White House "had better be prepared to run
a coalition that is pretty big, because this is a country of 305
million people." Now, he's gambling that there's a base to be had in
the tea party movement; that pragmatism has been discarded for the
view that anyone who supports the Democrats is part of the ungodly
socialist conspiracy — or its dupe.
But as supporters of tea party avatar Rand Paul — including Sarah
Palin, James Dobson and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint — discovered
this week, this is a movement that comes with baggage as well as
votes. Paul's now notorious ambivalence toward the Civil Rights Act of
1964 is actually more like carry-on luggage in this crowd. (I'm
perfectly willing to believe that Paul isn't a racist, but
libertarians are philosophical Peter Pans, and it somehow never seems
to have occurred to him that not applying the Civil Rights Act to
private businesses or public accommodations actually could hurt
people.) Though the tea party may appear to Gingrich like an inchoate
upwelling of rage ripe for leadership, the movement already is riven
with ideological eccentricities that long have lurked on the shadowy
margins of our politics.
Some of the state tea party organizations Gingrich praises in this
book, for example, advocate repeal of the 17th Amendment, which
established the direct election of senators by popular vote. Is the
former speaker really willing to return that prerogative to state
legislators as a way of restoring federalism? Others he's singled out
in his book insist on an idiosyncratic reading of the 10th Amendment,
which would absolve states from having to enforce any federal law that
has not been approved by two-thirds of their state lawmakers. (Talk
about the Civil War — that's John C. Calhoun's nullification argument
all over again.) Other, far more sinister conspiracy theories —
"birthers," "truthers" and worse — are common currency among the tea
party's local leaders.
At 67, Gingrich may think that riding the tea party express is his
last shot at the White House. Perhaps that's true. But I can't help
thinking of "The Lady and the Tiger."