January 27, 2012
On Newt the Grandiose

So Newt Gingrich is making much hay of his grandiosity these days. He says America is a grandiose country, and that it is good that he is a grandiose person because it takes grandiose people to make a great nation.

He may well be right about all this, but here’s the thing: it appears that Newt Gingrich does not know what the word “grandiose” means. Or, perhaps more likely, it seems that he has doubled down on his grandiosity because he knows it is a bad thing, but is relying on the hope that if he embraces the idea of his grandioseness, his audience (and, disappointingly, the journalists covering him) won’t know that grandiosity is a thing to be mocked, not celebrated.

See, grandiose means ridiculously grand. Overly ambitious. Pompous self-regard all out of balance of one’s actual skills and accomplishments. Think tin pot dictators who have never fought a war festooned with so many medals and ribbons that they look more like Christmas trees than human beings. Grandiose people and schemes are things to be snarked at, not honored.

So in celebrating his own grandiosity and insisting on the grandiosity of the United States, Newt Gingrich is actually holding himself and the nation he claims to love up to public mockery. 

Just thought you should know, since it appears Newt doesn’t.

January 23, 2012
A Brief Thought On Newt Gingrich’s Political Appeal

I, like many commentators and analysts, have been struggling to get my head around the question of Newt Gingrich’s sudden popularity. Here you have a phenomenon: a thrice-divorced, twice-self acknowledged affair-having man seeking to lead the “family values” party. A former Speaker of the House seeking office as a Washington outsider. A man who is, if anything, disliked more by the Republicans who worked with him when he was Speaker than by the Democrats who is now seeking to lead the Republican Party. A man who claims a unique mission of define and defend civilization who remains the only sitting Speaker of the House reprimanded and fined for ethics violations AS Speaker and who took millions consulting for a company at the heart of the financial crisis. It’s quite a thing. A man seeking to run a “small government” party whose plans entail the massive infusion of the federal government into the lives of ordinary citizens.

Surely part of the explanation for all of this is the well-discussed “not Romney” effect. There are some number of Republicans who simply cannot abide Romney, and are seeking the “not Romney,” whoever that might be. If it’s Gingrich, well, then, it’s Gingrich. Just “not Romney.”

But I don’t think this is enough of an explanation. Newt has been around too long and has too much baggage for “not Romney” to really be a persuasive explanation. It could as easily be “not Newt.” For many Republicans in DC, in fact, it is decidedly “not Newt. Dear God Not Newt!”

Then it hit me: Newt Gingrich is the perfect candidate for that set of Republicans who think government should be run like a conservative talk radio program. One should bluster, blow hard, be rude to opponents, shut off debate and generally seek rhetorical dominance at all costs. Governance, in this model, is the act of saying what is “true” and enforcing that “truth” against all challengers. It is the politics of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck: my truth versus your evil.

Note that in the world of talk radio, no rhetorical moment is excessive. We can be engaged in a clash of civilizations; everything can be the most urgent thing ever; and so long as I talk fast enough, move on to the next topic quickly enough, and cut off anyone who is about the point out the inherent silliness of anything I say, I “win.” 

Governance, of course, doesn’t work this way. Congress and the Courts get a say on what happens, and one can shout at the federal bureaucracy for as long as you want, but there are a lot more of them than there are of you as President. Governing is not winning on a talk radio program.

Which, no doubt, those Republicans who like Newt Gingrich for his radio star persona would find out should he actually win as President. Which he won’t.

He might end up with a lovely radio show, though.

January 9, 2012
"Let me be very clear, because this is something that makes me, quite frankly, very irritated. … What I said was, there’s a real problem in America because you have a president who’s put more people on food stamps — people, I didn’t say any ethnic group, people — than any other president in history. … And I said I would be willing to go to the NAACP annual convention — which most Republicans are not willing to do — and I’d be willing to talk about the importance of food stamps versus paychecks."

Newt Gingrich, explaining his NAACP/food stamps/jobs comment….

And still not getting the staggering racial and moral assumptions underlying his statement. For, apparently, it is only to the NAACP that Newt needs to explain the importance of jobs versus food stamps … and, of course, it is the civilization-defining and civilization-defending Newt Gingrich who needs to tell the NAACP how to “help” the people they represent.

Thanks, Newt, for your generosity and insight. Really. It’s very touching.

December 24, 2011
Gingrich, Perry and the Problem of Organization

Not that Politicalprof — and lots of other political scientists as well — has ever made this point before, but in presidential elections, organization matters.

See, for all the endless discussion of issues, and personalities, and shifting coalitions that might support or oppose candidates across the length and breadth of a campaign, the plain fact is that the American presidential election process is long, hard and complicated. Each party has a structurally different process; each state has different rules for how its elections will be run; federal campaign finance law shifts over time. There is much wrong with the way we select our presidents, but one thing is true: no one who gets elected president can run a badly organized, underfunded and under-staffed campaign. You simply can’t get through the maze of the presidential election process on the fly: you need a large, professional, well-funded staff to get you through to the nomination and then the presidency.

Which helps explain the fact that both Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry failed to qualify for the Virginia ballot. As it happens, Virginia has relatively stringent ballot access rules: to get listed as a presidential candidate, one has to get the signatures of 10,000 registered Virginia voters. This, as you can understand, is hard. So you have to have staff in Virginia well ahead of the actual election systematically working to collect enough signatures to even get listed as a candidate. Note that this has to be done well before you as a candidate are ever likely even to enter the state in campaign mode. It is one of many pieces of background work that has to be done by any campaign if it expects to succeed in a run for the presidency.

Neither Perry nor Gingrich (nor Cain before them) had close to what it takes. And so, whatever else is going on on the day of the Virginia primary, regardless of whether either is leading in the Republican primary or national polls or not, no one in the state of Virginia will have the chance to vote for either Perry or Gingrich. Simply because they lacked the organizational moxie to pass the first hurdle on the path to getting the nomination.

Note that this is why Sarah Palin was just wrong when she hinted the other day that there’s still time for someone to get in. While a Palin candidacy would draw lots of heat and fire, the simple fact is that what it wouldn’t draw is lots of votes—she’s not on the ballot, and wouldn’t be able to get on the ballot in lots of states.

It may not be sexy, but organization matters. If all  you do is focus on the policy profiles and personality clashes of various candidates, you’re missing the deeper question of who is actually likely to be able to sustain a candidacy over time. Only those candidates with real organizations and real staffs can win the nomination these days. Everyone else is a media star with no effective political muscle.

December 19, 2011
Republican Presidential Dictatorship

So it turns out that most of the Republican presidential candidates this year utterly loathe the notion of Constitutional democracy. They—and apparently their supporters—prefer presidential dictatorship.

Think about it. The heart of the theory of the Constitution is the system of checks and balances. Congress interferes with the President; Presidents interfere with the Congress; courts interfere with everybody … the theory is that, as frustrating as this infighting can be for getting things done, it’s the best way to ensure American liberty: so long as government is fighting with itself, it’s not robbing you of your rights and liberties.

However, most of the Republican candidates running for President this cycle have taken positions not simply critical of this Constitutional order, but downright hostile to it. Rick Perry, for example, wants Congress to meet part time, and only every other year—as the state legislature does in Texas. This line draws cheers at Republican debates—screwing Congress is a popular idea. Except, of course, that power will still be wielded in Washington while Congress is at home … and without a pesky Congress in the way! Which makes the president the power center of American government.

Especially when taken in combination with another set of Republican ideas out there aimed at undermining the Court’s power and authority in the system of checks and balances. Rick Perry, for example, wants term limits on Supreme Court Justices (18 years). Newt Gingrich wants to wipe out the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (based in San Francisco, it is far too liberal for most Republicans’ preferences), and has recently further suggested that it’s okay to have the Capitol Police or Justice Department arrest judges who make rulings out of touch with public opinion. Michele Bachmann has argued that Congress should (in its brief sessions) wildly constrict both the court’s jurisdiction and its discretion. Collectively, such moves would gut the court’s power, and remove it as a component of the system of checks and balances.

Meanwhile, presidential power would grow unchecked: no legislature, no courts … presidents would be free to act as they wished.

And note that Gingrich is not some kook candidate from the fringes of society. He is the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives (the only Constitutionally-listed office in Congress), a PhD in History (about which he apparently knows very, very little), and the leading contender for the Republican nomination for President—an office from which he would have the opportunity to act on his anti-Constitutional principles. Similarly, Michele Bachmann is an attorney who presumably went to the occasional con law class and learned that judges are supposed to be significantly free of public pressure when they make their rulings.

To be fair, Ron Paul has opposed these ideas … but his pledge, in a recent commercial, to eliminate vast numbers of federal agencies and their associated budgets IN HIS FIRST YEAR has the remarkable taint of authoritarianism to it: does Congress get no say in these matters?

It’s perfectly fine to believe the current Constitutional order is broken and needs reform—indeed, I think I can make a stronger case that the system is broken these days than I can a case that all is hunky-dory. But that’s an entirely different matter than asserting presidential authority to act however the president wants …  so long as “it’s the right thing to do.”

That’s dictatorship, and it is most decidedly not “the American way.” It is, however, what many of the Republican candidates are promising in their campaigns … and it is the rhetoric that draws some of the biggest applause during the debates. Which ought to scare the bejeezus out of anyone who actually claims to love the Constitution—including Republicans.

December 12, 2011
If I Thought Newt Actually Knew What He Was Talking About …

The self-asserted briliiantness that is Newt Gingrich has gotten himself into a passel of well-deserved hot water for his comment that the Palestinians are an “invented people.”

The reason Newty Newty Newt Newt got himself into trouble for this crack is his obvious and quite vicious political reason for making it: Gingy is asserting that there is no necessary connection between a group of Arab persons he says are called “Palestinians” and that part of the world long known as “Palestine”—the bulk of which today is contained within the State of Israel. The implication of the Newtbrain’s comments is clear: since the Palestinians aren’t somehow “real,” they have no claim to the land of Palestine, and the Israelis can do whatever they want on “their” land. His Newtship denied a people’s existence, and thus made them dispensable. 

Such dismissals are the stuff of genocides, and Newtface deserved every attack he got.

Which leaves me in an odd place: I want to note that every people is “invented,” but to disassociate myself from Newtly Newtcastle’s vile comments. Bear with me before flaming me.

Think about it: there were no “Americans” 400 years ago. The Pilgrims weren’t Americans. Neither were the Puritans. Most of the Founding Fathers considered themselves English gentlemen up to the Revolution; Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s leading general, considered his country to be Virginia—which is why he turned Lincoln down when Lincoln offered Lee command of all the Union armies after Virginia—Lee’s country—seceded from the Union. Among the many changes wrought by Civil War was a change in construction from people saying “the United States are” to today’s “the United States is.” It took the Civil War to make the Americans a people—and even then I can find you people are skeptical of this notion today.

More broadly, nationalism as a sentiment and an attachment is a relatively new idea in the world. The creation and maintenance of fellow-feeling across large territories is significantly a phenomenon of post-French Revolution history. (Note that I am stealing from many scholars here; this is NOT an argument original to me.) Whether it is Americans or French or Russians or Chinese or Kenyans or Argentinians, the notion of nationhood based on geography is relatively new in world history. The notion that people are a nation based on a shared ethnicity is even more recent—a product of the notions of ethnic nationalism embedded in concepts like Zionism that emerged in the late 1800s. All national peoples are invented. That’s the actual point of nationalism as a concept.

If I thought His Newtness meant any of what I just wrote, I’d have been duty-bound as a scholar to defend him. But I don’t. I think he was making a cheap political point and layering it in the pompous dressing of someone who thinks he understands a deep and complex point, but relies on the fact that the person he’s talking to knows even less about it than he does and so can’t or won’t challenge him.

The only thing worse than ignorance is having just enough knowledge to think you know what you’re talking about while those around you remain sufficiently stupid to not be able to call you out on it. Ladies and gentlemen: I give you Newt Gingrich. 

December 11, 2011
How Weird is the Republican Race for President?

Well…. as my wife pointed out … 

The tea party is looking for an outsider  … so they are supporting former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

The Republicans are looking for a moralistic leader who would never bring dishonor to the Presidency … so they are supporting twice-divorced, twice (that we know of) cheating on his wives Newt Gingrich.

The Republicans are looking for a change agent who will go to Washington and fix everything … so they are supporting flamed-out-as-Speaker, lobbyist, and DC-reviled Newt Gingrich.

As I’ve said before, it all makes sense if you don’t think about it.

December 3, 2011
"I’m convinced that, if NASA were a GSE [government-sponsored enterprise], we probably would be on Mars today."

Newt Gingrich, extolling now-hated mortgage giant Freddie Mac in April 2007. 

h/t: Mother Jones

November 27, 2011
The Gingrich Endorsement: Does It Matter?

Pundits are commenting on the Manchester (NH) Union Leader’s endorsement of Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination for President. The theory is that the paper’s endorsement is a BIG THING, and that it will promote Gingrich’s chances of winning the NH primary, and the nomination after.

To which the empiricist in me asks: does it matter?

The answer is: not really.

In 1996, for example, the paper endorsed hard core conservative and racist/damn near racist Republican Pat Buchanan. Bob Dole won the nomination before losing to — really being crushed by — Bill Clinton in his reelection race. It nominated conservative businessman and flat tax advocate Steve Forbes in 2000: when George W Bush won the race and the presidency. (Forbes flopped.) The paper did endorse John McCain in 2008—which is something, I guess. 1 for 3, or about Hall of Fame baseball hitting stats. Just not presidential material.

In the only recent Democratic race that it endorsed a candidate in, in 2004, it chose pro-Iraq War and all around whiner candidate Joe Lieberman … for a race John Kerry ran away with.

So enjoy, Newt. And enjoy, media people who need to fill air time with something … anything … no matter how essentially useless and meaningless it is. But Newt Gingrich isn’t going to win the Republican race for the nomination, and almost certainly isn’t going to win even New Hampshire.

Which, I guess, will give me a new data point when I write some version of this post all over again … in 2015!

May 18, 2011
Newt Gingrich’s Sin, part II

Since we all sin, or at least screw up, human beings have developed elaborate rituals for letting sinners back into “good” society. Sometimes these rituals work; sometimes they don’t; but in any case we have created systems through which we can signal our recognition of the error of our ways and our desire to be let back in to polite society.

In the west, at least two practices seem central to any effort to overcome sin: confession—acknowledging error; and atonement—the making of wrong things right. These things may be central to all cultures’ practices of sin and forgiveness, of course, but I don’t know enough about other practices to make such a universalist claim. It is certainly true in my culture, in any case.

As I pointed out in last night’s blog post, Newt Gingrich effectively sinned against tea party dogma over the weekend when he had the temerity to suggest that the Ryan Plan for Medicare was a too-radical, misbegotten effort at right wing social engineering. And, as happens to sinners who challenge dogma, Gingrich faced the wrath of the keepers of the faith: Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, and FOX News, among others, all pounded Gingrich for his faith crime. The neoconservative editorialist Charles Krauthammer announced that Gingrich’s campaign is over, although it’s not at all clear that he gets to make that declaration.

It has, in other words, been a pretty rough 48 hours in Newt Gingrich’s political life.

Now, like a sinner who wants back in, Gingrich is confessing and atoning. As he confessed to FOX News’ Greta van Susteren, “When I make a mistake, and I’m going to on occasion, I’m going to share with the American people that was a mistake because that way we can have an honest conversation.” “I want to set a precedent for new kinds of presidential campaigns,” he continued: “I made a mistake and I called Paul Ryan today, who’s a very close personal friend, and I said that.”

I have sinned against you, he might as well have said. 

He is also engaged in atonement exercises, meeting with and calling tea party leaders. It’s not hard to imagine that Gingrich is saying something to the effect of: “don’t worry. I won’t do it again.” His loyalty to dogma will no doubt be reconfirmed shortly.

There is, however, at least one aspect of Gingrich’s performance of the sin, confess and atone ritual that may undermine others’ sense of his sincerity—which is a problem since it is the community’s acceptance that confession and atonement are sincere that is central to a sinner’s chances of reemerging into “good” society. This aspect derives from the fact that he is still running a presidential campaign. Thus, interestingly, as he has confessed his sins and sought forgiveness for them, Gingrich has also said that “Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood, because I have said publicly those words were inaccurate and unfortunate.”

In other words, you can’t trust what I said then … so trust that I am being sincere when I apologize now and promise I won’t do it again.

Ah. Good luck with that.