Who would have thought that Republican voters would prove so accepting of sin? At least when its committed by a white guy, like the serial philanderer Newt Gingrich, who betrayed not one but two wives while they were enduring serious medical difficulties.
In the latest New York Times/CBS poll of Iowa Republicans, alleged philanderer Herman Cain's once impressive support shifts to the new front-runner, Gingrich, whose richer history of marital deceit is not a problem even for the self-described evangelical Christian voters who favor him over Mitt Romney by a ratio of 3-1.
It is the first time that I have felt sympathy for a candidate experiencing the prejudice directed at a practicing Mormon. Clearly the ultimate of "squeaky clean" doesn't cut it for a presidential contender of that faith among Republican Christian "values voters," even when he is compared with a sexual roué of Gingrich's considerable magnitude.
Or perhaps it is Newt's peerless capacity to mask moral hypocrisy with the appearance of religious propriety, first as a Protestant and now as a Roman Catholic, that endears him to other Republicans who wear their religion on their sleeves. Many of those were willing to tear the country apart over the sexual wanderings of a Democrat in the White House, but now they are quite willing to send someone of Gingrich's reputation to the Oval Office. We are speaking of a politician who was having an extramarital affair with a congressional staff member 27 years his junior, now more appropriately his third wife, during the very years when he was so energetically stoking the Clinton sex scandal.
But Newt did manage to cooperate closely with the Democratic president in passing the "welfare reform" legislation that in effect ended the main federal poverty program. Given that 70 percent of those covered by the gutted welfare program were children, it is at least consistent that the former House speaker now favors further aiding those children by wiping out the long-standing restraints on the exploitation of child labor.
Gingrich also cooperated successfully with President Clinton on the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, which legislated drastic cuts in the capital gains tax benefiting the wealthy. In addition, he was a great partner for Clinton in whipping up enthusiasm for a broader agenda of deregulation that set the stage for the housing mortgage bubble and resultant Great Recession. It is Gingrich's hypocrisy concerning these economic matters that will prove more troubling as his chances of becoming president increase.
Given that Gingrich was on the payroll of Freddie Mac to the tune of $1.6 million, how in the world will he be able, in a one-on-one debate with Barack Obama, to logically make what has become the standard Republican case: that it was liberal do-gooders at the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who forced the banks to make bad housing loans?
The honest answer, politically awkward of course, would be to admit that those agencies were government sponsored only on the risk end, and as for profit entities they were owned and traded by investors in the stock market. They got in trouble for the same reason Citigroup did, because the obscenely huge bonuses of their top executives were driven by their profit performance and not the quality of the home mortgages they backed.
The packaging of hugely profitable but eventually toxic mortgage securities, with the GSE seal of approval, that is at the heart of the economic crisis was the result of a Republican-engineered deregulatory mania that Newt abetted and Clinton supported. A mania that Sen. Obama criticized, but not Gingrich, who was a highly paid booster for Freddie Mac even as the housing market was imploding.
The private/public GSE model of the two housing agencies in which the risk but not the profits was carried by the public is the very arrangement that Gingrich is on record as celebrating as late as 2007 when the crisis was visibly under way. Gingrich favored it as a model not just for housing but even the space program. "I'm convinced that if NASA were a GSE, we probably would be on Mars today," he declared in a post on the Freddie Mac website on April 14, 2007.
Although Gingrich now claims that when he was on the Freddie Mac gravy train he was simply giving objective advice as a "historian" that sought to improve the agency's performance, the truth is quite the opposite. Obama will no doubt delight in quoting back to Gingrich his assertion that "while we need to improve the regulation of the GSEs, I would be very cautious about changing their role or the model itself."
Gingrich, who ran into trouble with the House Ethics Committee when was speaker and paid a $300,000 fine, is himself a variant of a GSE, having turned his government backing into a hugely profitable enterprise. After he left office his various personal business enterprises had revenues of about $100 million. Last week in South Carolina, Gingrich scoffed at the idea that he needed to work as a lobbyist; after all, he noted, he is paid $60,000 a speech.
You would think that with a sorry personal and political record like Gingrich's -- and there is so much more -- the Republicans would never nominate him as their presidential candidate if they expected to win. But I wouldn't rule it out, for the driving faith of the GOP has become the notion that the toxic mixture of moral hypocrisy and unfettered greed is a formula for victory. Newt could be their man.