As we get ready for John Boehner to take the gavel from Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday, I find myself thinking back to the last time a Republican speaker took control of the House from a Democrat -- and reflecting on how far down the wrong road we have traveled since then.
It was January 1995, and Newt Gingrich, now considered a right-wing bomb thrower, was taking the gavel from Tom Foley. After taking the oath of office, he delivered a speech that praised FDR as "the greatest president of the 20th century" and presented concern for the least among us as a shared national objective. "The balanced budget is the right thing to do," he said. "But it does not in my mind have the moral urgency of coming to grips with what is happening to the poorest Americans."
For the incoming Republican speaker, reducing poverty and lifting the poor into the middle class was a moral imperative beyond the left vs. right battlefield -- not just the purview of lefties, socialists, and community organizers:
I say to those Republicans who believe in total privatization, you cannot believe in the Good Samaritan and explain that as long as business is making money we can walk by a fellow American who is hurt and not do something.... If you cannot afford to leave the public housing project, you are not free. If you do not know how to find a job and do not know how to create a job, you are not free. If you cannot find a place that will educate you, you are not free. If you are afraid to walk to the store because you could get killed, you are not free.
So now, with poverty higher than it was 16 years ago, with greater income inequality, and with the middle class struggling to hold on, what will Speaker Boehner make his number one priority? According to the Washington Post, it's "cutting spending," followed by repealing the healthcare law, and "helping get our economy moving" (no specifics on how he plans to do that).
Yet we saw on 60 Minutes that he's very aware of how fragile the American Dream has become, telling Lesley Stahl, "I can't go to a school anymore. I used to go to a lot of schools. And you see all these little kids running around. Can't talk about it." And he choked up when he did try to talk about "making sure these kids have a shot at the American Dream, like I did. It's important."
Interestingly, in his first speech as speaker, Gingrich also talked about being moved by the woes of school kids.
"I have seldom been more shaken," he said, "than I was after the election when I had breakfast with two members of the Black Caucus. One of them said to me, 'Can you imagine what it is like to visit a first-grade class and realize that every fourth or fifth young boy in that class may be dead or in jail within 15 years? And they are your constituents and you are helpless to change it?' For some reason, I do not know why, maybe because I visit a lot of schools, that got through. I mean, that personalized it. That made it real, not just statistics, but real people."
But the trajectory of our political discourse over the last decade and a half has meant that taking on poverty has gone from a moral imperative and shared national objective to an afterthought -- or no thought at all.
The question is, is there anything that can be done to help Boehner make the connection between the policies he supports and the effect those policies have on the kids who bring him to tears?
Newt Gingrich failed to follow through on the moral imperative he identified in his first speech as speaker, trading in his moral vision and replacing it 15 months later with an announcement that the Republican agenda could be reduced to six words: "Earn more, keep more, do more."
Will Boehner's take be "Earn more, keep more, cut more"? Or is there a chance he will surprise us? Maybe it's because it's close enough to Christmas that I still believe in miracles, but wouldn't it be great if the John Boehner who takes the gavel on Wednesday is the one who weeps at the thought of kids denied a shot at the American Dream?
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