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.