I flew into Des Moines, Iowa, earlier today. I’ll be in the Hawkeye state until Wednesday, covering the Iowa caucuses and will plan to post here a couple of times each day between now and Tuesday. After checking in at the media center in downtown Des Moines, I drove out to Marshalltown, population 25,000 or so, located about 50 miles northeast of the state Capitol.
The big event: a Newt Gingrich “meet and greet” at Junction Sports Bar and Grill (a nice bonus: while we waited for Gingrich, who was about 30 minutes late, I got to watch some football). When I arrived at 2 p.m., the scheduled beginning of the event, the place was packed—perhaps 150 people crammed into a pretty tight quarters. It’s been noted that Gingrich’s most favorable demographic is older (white) Americans and that was certainly true of this gathering. Just ball-parking, I’d venture to say there were fewer than 20 people under the age of 40 in the room, with the clear majority over 60. I know the numbers will be significantly different when I see Ron Paul.
When Gingrich arrived with his wife Callista, he was greeted by enthusiastic applause. He and his wife worked their way through a makeshift aisle that snaked through the center of the bar, shaking hands and stopping to sign the occasional autograph while the former Speaker made his way toward an audio set-up in the back of the bar. Gingrich wasted no time getting to the heart of the matter—a plea that his supporters persuade the many still-undecided voters to come off the fence and caucus for Gingrich. His closing argument here has been that he is the only candidate with a real track record of success in governing effectively in Washington. He took credit for working with Reagan when Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts, according to conservative mythology, set off a boom for the remainder of that decade. He also took credit for creating 11 million new jobs and four straight balanced budgets in the 1990s, when he was Speaker.
Of course, Gingrich is fudging here, since he was ousted as Speaker and left the House shortly after the 1998 mid-term elections, at the beginning of the second of those four consecutive fiscal years in which balanced budgets occurred. And needless to say, the name “Bill Clinton” never passed Gingrich’s lips when the former Speaker was touting his extraordinary economic successes.
Gingrich got the most enthusiastic response when he implored his supporters to send a message to his opponents. He told the bar’s denizens: “Iowa has an opportunity to really change American politics by proving that negative ads don’t work.” By doing so, Gingrich said, “we would really help America move to a better political process. We cannot change the negativity and the divisiveness of Washington by having people who run negative and divisive campaigns.”
Anyone who knows Gingrich’s political history knows that this is particularly rich coming from him. Newt Gingrich, it can fairly be argued, played a pivotal role in the polarization of modern American politics, first as a bomb-throwing back-bencher who believed the GOP House leadership had an insufficient instinct for the jugular vein, and then as a party leader who schooled his fellow Republicans on how most effectively to demonize Democrats.
In a 1994 memo, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” Gingrich implored his GOP compatriots to draw clear, decisive contrasts between themselves and Democrats. He provided a list of words - “optimistic” words that were to be associated with Republicans and their ideas, and “negative words” that were to be associated with Democrats and their ideas. Among the words and phrases that Gingrich wanted to be relentlessly applied to Democrats were “failure” “decay” “corrupt” “radical” “anti-child” “anti-family” “anti-flag” “traitors” “greed” and so on.
Of course, one can readily apply the well-worn phrase “politics ain’t bean bag.” And one can also try to argue that Gingrich is a changed man, as he so often claims in response to questions about his previous infidelities. But the apparent convert to positive politics has said that Obama was perhaps the “most dangerous President ever,” was deeply influenced by Kenyan anti-colonialist ideas and, in case anyone missed the point, penned a book last year titled “To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine.”
What struck me again about Gingrich today was that there is perhaps no major public figure who so effortlessly combines vicious cynicism with abject self-pity as does Newt.