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The Rabbi Writes: Gingrich v. Clinton

The Jewish Humanist, February 1996, Vol. XXXII, Number 7

Gingrich v. Clinton.  It is a battle to the finish.  Rarely has political confrontation in America been so intense and so nasty.  No holds barred.  Every opportunity to assault the “enemy” will be used.  Even Hillary is not safe. 

After two frustrating years for the Democrats and Clinton, the Republicans took over Congress in a stunning victory.  Both the House of Representatives and the Senate were in their hands.  Not since the end of World War II had the Republicans tasted such legislative power.  The Democrats were stunned by the size of their defeat and collapsed into depression and disarray.  Clinton was seen as the “kiss of death!” 

The Republican victory produced a new Speaker of the House, who very quickly saw himself as the new leader of America.  The alternative to a weak and discredited president.  His name and face became a popular sign of the “revolution” which he was now planning.  Determined to avoid the compromises of the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, Gingrich and his 72 ardent new Republican representative wanted nothing more than to undo the legacy of the New Deal.  Sixty years of big government, the welfare states and outrageous defeats would not be replaced by a return to “American values.”  Gingrich called this proposed revolution the “Contract with America.” 

The challenge ws formidable.  Over the last sixty years the American people had grown accustomed to a benevolent government that dispersed a wide variety of benefits from poor relief, food stamps, child support, educational scholarships and health care service to farm subsidies and veterans payments.  Even the prosperous middle class had come to take for granted the comforts of Medicare.  After half a century the welfare state was no longer a radical new idea.  It had become the conservative status quo.  Tearing it down was ironically the work of “radicals.” 

The “radical” posture of the “Gang of 73” confronted old established institutions and expectations.  The radicals of the “Contract with America” proposed to restore the small government free enterprise of pre-New Deal America.  They wanted to eliminate the right of the poor to public support, to decentralize welfare, to substitute “workfare” for handouts, to shrink Medicaid, to make Medicare more expensive and less inclusive, to revise the regulations of environmental protection, to cut educational scholarships, and to close down entire departments of the government.They proposed to attack the enemy of runaway deficits and the threat of federal bankruptcy with the reality of a balanced budget. And they proposed to achieve this balanced budget with a substantial tax cut, which, they asserted a’la (sic) supply-side economics, would serve as a powerful boost to new investment. 

This economic agenda (conservative to some, radical to others) was to be accompanied with a renewal of traditional” American values.”  Quota systems and affirmative action would be rejected. Every American will be encouraged to assume responsibility for his and her life. And the “war against religion” would be terminated with the introduction of prayer into the public schools, a procedure guaranteed to boost ethics and morality among students. 

Despite the formidable obstacles of inertia and political compromise, Gingrich succeeded in turning most of this agenda into Congressional legislation. His determination and passion were greater than Clinton’s two years earlier. His energies were focused and his ability to handle hostility and rejection was more carefully honed than that of the President. He was a powerful leader with a “revolutionary” program, who was able to bring most of his proposals to the very desk of Bill Clinton for the president’s signature.  

Clinton now seized center stage by vetoing the legislation. He presented himself as a “conservative” who was defending the “traditional” rights of all Americans. The government shutdown. The poor protested. The middle class became nervous about the cuts in its benefits. Farmers and veterans had second thoughts about balanced budgets. Clinton’s ratings rose. Gingrich’s ratings fell. The political battle lines for the 1996 election were drawn. 

What does it all mean? 

It means that the political agenda of this country has been written by Gingrich. The idea man is Gingrich. Clinton is responding to the Gingrich initiative.Clinton has offered no clear competing vision. His strength lies in his defense of the status quo.  

It means that Gingrich may lose the election.  But he has won the principle. The principle is that the American budget must be balanced in seven years. Clinton has already made that concession. 

It means that welfare will never be the same again. Even if welfare is not decentralized, even if the guaranteed safety net remains, workfare is the order of the day. Wherever possible, long-run dependency will be replaced by some form of personal responsibility. 

It means that health care reform, the failed effort of the Clinton administration, will be pushed on its way by the cost-cutting moves of the Gingrich initiative. 

It means that the reform of public education will become a central issue for Americans on a federal, state, and local level. With a shortage of educational dollars, the way educational money is invested will become part of a radical new educational re-think. 

It means that if Clintonwins the election in 1996, he will win a platform partially designed by Gingrich. He will simply guarantee that he will do the same thing less abrasively and more compassionately. 

The problems with Gingrich are Legion. He has an unattractive bulldog personality, which always manages to convey the mean side of his character. He is a fighter who does not easily accept the political compromises that are necessary for success. He has tied a classically liberal free enterprise economic proposal to a reactionary social agenda designed by religious fundamentalists. He has naively assumed that the middle class and the elderly rich will easily give up their own welfare benefits. He ignores the fact that our environment needs protection and regulation. 

Above all, Gingrich has undermined the credibility of his balanced budget proposal by advocating a tax cut for the rich at the same time that he proposes removing the safety net for the poor. You cannot persuade the public to accept personal sacrifice unless that sacrifice is equally distributed. 

But the reality remains. The only visible politician with a clear vision of an economic plan for the future is the Intolerable Newt Gingrich. Bill Clinton is a status quo politician with no passionate focus.. 

I will not vote for Gingrich’s party or program because it distributes sacrifice unfairly and because its message of fiscal and personal responsibility is all tied to a reactionary and fundamentalist social agenda. But I recognize creative leadership when I see it.  

Confronting the Religious Right

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 3-4 Summer_Autumn 1995

Confronting the Religious Right 

Because of the Religious Right, political decisions in America have become ethical issues. Preserving the separation of religion and government is a moral challenge of supreme importance. 

The power of the Religious Right rests on a variety of developments. Charismatic leaders, money, media exposure, the exploitation of available church audiences, the vulnerability of the Republican Party — all these factors are important to the rise of the political fundamentalists. But the most important foundation is the growing concern of millions of Americans with the moral decline of America. Selfishness, rudeness, “flakiness,” disrespect for all authority, and the incessant demand for instant gratification are more visible than ever before. The Religious Right claims that a return to religion, especially in our public schools, will cure this “disease.” 

Even though the cure is an illusion, the “disease” is real. There is a values crisis in America. Something has to be done to deal with it. And the great danger is that we will turn the problem over to “quack doctors” who will do more harm than good. 

Opposing prayer in the public schools, fighting government vouchers for parochial schools, removing Bible readings from state-run classrooms — all of these efforts will fail if we do not address the values issue. 

A negative strategy, a strategy that simply says no, will not work. Only a positive strategy, a proposal that seeks to confront values anxiety with values education, has any real chance for success. It is not enough to romanticize the historic importance of the separation of church and state. We must also have some alternative answer to the need to teach values to our children. 

“Politically correct” liberals often claim that values are too subjective and too controversial to be taught in the public schools. Only the home and the church can appropriately handle them. But what if the home and the church are not able to do what the community expects from them? What if millions of children have no exposure to a decent home or to an effective church? Are there no shared values that a public school can transmit? Is morality only a matter of sex education, feminism, and abortion? 

The historic public school in America taught values. It was called “good citizenship.” Many of us grew up with a report card that evaluated our self-control, reliability, and cooperation. Our teachers saw themselves not only as information dispensers, but also as moral disciplinarians. While their techniques would now be regarded as too harsh and too authoritarian, their message was appropriate. Education is not only about personal development and personal rights; it is also about living in a community. 

Many public school teachers are still trying to teach citizenship values, either through personal example or by direct instruction. But they are often afraid, in the present environment of the fundamentalist right and the multicultural left, to say so. They are intimidated into claiming that they are teaching no values at all.  

Such a strategy feeds into the political agenda of the Religious Right. This reticence enables them to condemn “valueless” education and to push for prayer in the public schools. Only the refusal to be reticent, only the willingness to resist the pressures from the right and the left, only the courage to advocate values education in the state schools, will provide a workable counterforce to fundamentalist pressure. 

The premises of such a values education have been with us for a long time. Here they are: 

  1. The Founding Fathers of this nation, together with thousands of other historic figures — male and female, black and white — are appropriate ethical role models for our children. 
  1. There are certain moral values that are shared by almost all Americans, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, religious or nonreligious. Values like fairness, responsibility, reliability, compassion, cooperation, and the postponement of gratification are universal. They are important and noncontroversial. 
  1. Ethical values can be taught in both a religious and a nonreligious way. One way is to attach the value to the command of God. The other way is to connect the value to the consequences of behavior. Keeping promises can be important because God wants us to keep promises. It also can be important because society will fall apart if nobody can trust or believe anybody else. Teaching values in a secular way does not negate the possibility of teaching values in a religious way. But it is possible to present them in a nonreligious way, which does not violate the religious beliefs of the students. 
  1. Citizenship values do not have to be taught in a separate class. They need to be integrated into the discussion of every subject and into every classroom situation. An effective teacher, regardless of academic discipline, knows how to teach values. 

These four premises are the foundation of a positive strategy for confronting the Religious Right. Perhaps what we need in the public schools is not to begin the day with prayer, but to hear and see ethical quotations from great Americans. With a quotation, at least you can have a discussion.