Newt Gingrich's entrance into CPAC was planned for someone who expected to win the straw poll. Though he didn't win the poll outright, Newt effectively did win the straw poll. He tied Romney for 30% of total votes, coming in just behind Rudy Giuliani's 34%. But Gingrich was received to a louder ovation than any other candidate throughout the convention, with much of the auditorium chanting "Newt!" before he even entered the room.
Most of all, though, was Gingrich's decision to enter through the back of the room and make his way through the crowd. He shook hands and dozens of people stood on their chairs to catch a glimpse of Gingrich. Cameras flashed in Obama-like volume and the room was literally shaking. When Gingrich got up to speak, he was given a standing ovation that lasted over 30 seconds. Once he started talking, the room lit up with flash bulb strobes like the start of the World Series.
If my description sounds dramatic, trust me it was. The receptions most candidates received were excited, but not overwhelming. While Giuliani received a resounding ovation on his entrance and Romney won big applause at the end of his speech, neither crowd reaction conveyed a sense of celebrity reception. Gingrich, on the other hand, did.
Gingrich began his speech with high-minded language about conservatives elevating the level of debate in American politics to win back the voting public. " We need to go out to the American people and have an idea-oriented, positive dialogue."* Gingrich repeatedly stressed that conservatives have better solutions and proposals than Democrats, solutions and proposals that Gingrich claimed were smarter and mature than what Democrats would put out there.
Gingrich, who said that he would not make any decisions about his presidential candidacy before September 30, 2007, proposed that the eventual Democratic and Republican nominees pledge to have weekly ninety minute dialogues with no moderator and only a time keeper. Gingrich wants candidates to pledge now to hold these debates over the last nine weeks of the 2008 campaign. The goal is to have a more honest, mature conversation about the course of our country. "If we insist on an adult conversation, our country will reunify itself with remarkable speed."
Yet despite his praise for solutions and proposals, Gingrich did not go far to elucidate what big ideas conservatives could put forward to make America better and win back the voting public. He specifically mentioned making English the official language for government, passing legislation to keep "one nation under God" in the pledge of allegiance, and creating a system of rating health care providers by quality and price to enable better consumer choice. The first two "proposals" Gingrich put out would not do a whit for anything that is substantively wrong with this country. The third is a marginal improvement that wouldn't guarantee that even one person who cannot currently afford to have health care now would be able to get it after Gingrich's rating system is implemented. Bill Scher's response is spot-on:
Gingrich called for adult conversations and then proceeded to insult a long list of prominent Democrats and the played-out Republican punching bag, our oldest ally France. He went so far as to suggest that Democrats hate freedom when talking about purchasing health care.
But these are your big solutions?...While most secular voters will say it's fine to have "God" in the Pledge or on money, keeping what's already there sure isn't a "solution" to anything, and it won't lure secular voters into the conservative camp.
But the point where Gingrich went completely over the line and his rhetoric about raising the level of dialogue in America was smacked in the face by the ingrained traditions of racism and bigotry in the Republican Party was when he addressed Hurricane Katrina. Gingrich first talked about the hurricane as a failure of government - municipal, state, and federal government to adequately respond to Katrina. But beyond the failures of governments, Gingrich saw a failure of the people of New Orleans [Audio courtesy of Bill Scher].
Gingrich blamed the victims of Katrina for their victimhood. He clearly implied that it was because they were "uneducated" they couldn't get out of the way of something as conspicuous as a hurricane. It was their own failure because they were bad citizens, according to Gingrich.
How can you have the mess we have in New Orleans, and not have had deep investigations of the federal government, the state government, the city government, and the failure of citizenship in the Ninth Ward, where 22,000 people were so uneducated and so unprepared, they literally couldn't get out of the way of a hurricane.
There you have it, folks. Raising the level of debate in politics, as described by Newt Gingrich, involves blaming victims for their victimhood, defaming your political opponents, and putting forth ideological legislation that doesn't help anyone other than conservatives who don't like the fact that there are Spanish-speakers with US passports. Gingrich's overwhelming appeal to CPAC voters is notable for his ability to mask some of his party's most reactionary ideas in the language of his ideological father Ronald Reagan. Just because he doesn't use Ann Coulter's diction doesn't mean that he appeals to a less offensive, hate-filled segment of the Republican base. Gingrich showed a truly shocking ability to speak out of both sides of his mouth with regards to aspirational campaign rhetoric. He wants new, innovative discourse, but only proposes tired, divisive Republican proposals that don't make this country any better than it is today for anyone who doesn't subscribe to his regressive Republican ideology.