Newt Gingrich's summer of imaginary threats

The ex-House Speaker sure is good at yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater

Published August 16, 2010 12:30PM (EDT)

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks during a fundraising breakfast for Iowa Congressional candidate Brad Zaun, Monday, July 12, 2010, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (AP)
Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks during a fundraising breakfast for Iowa Congressional candidate Brad Zaun, Monday, July 12, 2010, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (AP)

Maybe it’s his Ph.D., or his old association with Alvin and Heidi Toffler, or just the fact that he speaks with professorial confidence (even when he’s spewing complete historical nonsense): For whatever reason, Newt Gingrich is often treated by the media, and even by some Democrats, as an intellectual powerhouse – an ideas man who wants his party to win elections the right way and for the right reasons.

But maybe his antics this summer will finally put that notion to rest, because the only thing the ex-House Speaker seems interested in nowadays is stirring baseless panic. (Not that he isn’t very good at it, mind you.)

For the past month, Gingrich has been whipping the heartland into a panic over the "ground zero mosque" -- which is actually a proposed Muslim community center (modeled after the 92nd Street Y) that won’t even be visible from the ground zero site. But that hasn’t stopped Newt from demagoguing it as a symbol of Islamist "triumphalism" and likening its construction to “putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust museum – or from organizing a rally against the center in New York on 9/11.

Whether the community center is ever built is now beside the point. The fear campaign has served its purpose: The Republican base is frothing with anger over it and swing voters have moved decisively against it -- as have many Democratic voters. President Obama is paralyzed, unwilling to oppose it but terrified of the political backlash that might come from endorsing it. The net effect is the appearance of presidential indecision and spinelessness. In an election year that already favors them, Republicans now have one more emotionally-charged weapon to wield.

From Gingrich’s standpoint, the news is even better: His early, high-volume opposition has helped solidify his image as a leading voice on the right -- winning him extensive news coverage and furthering his efforts to (yet again) convince the media that he might run for president. But it should not be forgotten that all of this has been achieved through an utterly dishonest and inflammatory fear campaign, one that has encouraged well-meaning Americans to view their Muslim neighbors with suspicion and hostility. These are hardly the tactics of an "ideas man."

And now, Newt is off on another fear campaign, this one just as imaginary as the "ground zero mosque." The idea is that Democrats will use the lame duck session after this November’s elections to enact the major, sweeping legislation they’ve so far been unable to push through. Of course, as Alex Pareene has pointed out previously, the basic math that has stymied Democrats for the past 19 months -- the need for 60 votes to pass anything of consequence in the Senate -- won’t be any different in a lame duck session. So even if Democrats could produce complete partisan unity in the House and Senate, they’d still need Republican crossover votes to get anything through the Senate. In other words, if climate change legislation is dead now, it will be dead in the lame duck session too -- unless Republicans climb on board.

But the real absurdity of Newt’s campaign is his portrayal of an activist lame duck session as an affront to the spirit of democracy. The idea, advanced by Gingrich in a weekend column, is that if Democrats suffer losses this November (which, of course, they will) it will represent a clear rejection from the public of the “Obama-Pelosi-Reid” agenda. So, if Democrats were to then turnaround and exploit a technicality – the fact that the new Congress elected in November won’t take office until January – in order to enact more components of that agenda, it would mark a grave violation of the sacred idea that "in America, it is the people, not the politicians who govern":

The Declaration of Independence states that legitimate government derives its power "from the consent of the governed." That means that elected representatives are only legitimately empowered when the American people support their agenda, not when they are "free and liberated" from the opinions of the voters they represent. Likewise, a lack of support from voters ought to inspire a lack of boldness in legislators.

Gingrich, of course, doesn’t mention the time that he and his party ignored the clear will of the public and pursued an activist lame duck agenda. That was in 1998, when he was still the House Speaker and his party suffered unprecedented midterm election losses – largely because Gingrich and his fellow Republicans had spent the year pushing for Bill Clinton’s impeachment, even though polls showed voters didn’t believe he should be removed from office.

And yet, even with the public rendering a clear verdict on Election Day, Gingrich (who announced he’d step down as speaker after the election) and the GOP pressed ahead and – in a lame duck session, mind you – impeached the president of the United States. Asked why the election results wouldn’t dissuade them, Gingrich replied: “I don't think the Founding Fathers expected (members of Congress) to look at polls or listen to talk shows.” But now he expects them to, of course.

Not that Newt cares about this hypocrisy. As with the mosque, he’s found a thoroughly manufactured issue that feeds the paranoia of his party’s base, and now he’s exploiting it for his own benefit. But, hey, he made references to the Judiciary Acts of 1801 and 1802 in his column this weekend, so I guess he’s an intellectual.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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