To say there's a lot that's wrong about Newt Gingrich's candidacy is putting it mildly. (For one thing, its candidate is Newt Gingrich.) But he was right on the money last night when it came to the so-called "Super Committee."
There was little else said of substance at last night's presidential debate. Like most of these events nowadays, it seemed more like a beauty pageant. Or like the red carpet at a Hollywood premiere, where self-indulgent celebrities try to act likable before an audience they both resent and loathe -- all the more so because they need it.
Under these conditions we have two choices: We can either use this space to praise Newt for his burst of eloquence, or we can channel our inner Joan Rivers by making snarky comments about the candidates' fashion choices.
We'll go with praising Gingrich, even though Joan says his suit was several sizes too big. And those lapels! What were you thinking, Newt?
Here's what Gingrich said last night:
I mean, if you want to understand how totally broken Washington is, look at this entire model of the super committee, which has now got a magic number to achieve. And if it doesn't achieve the magic number, then we'll all have to shoot ourselves in the head so that when they come back with a really dumb idea to merely cut off our right leg, we'll all be grateful that they're only semi-stupid instead of being totally stupid.
That's right on. The entire process is absurd.
And Gingrich wasn't done. He focused his ire on the defense budget, since it's the sacred cow of Republican politics, but his comments also applied to all government spending. (While Republicans won't acknowledge it publicly, government performs a valuable role at home, too.) To create a broader critique of the Super Committee process, just substitute the words "government's role" whenever you see "national security" or "defense":
Now, the idea that you have a bunch of historically illiterate politicians who have no sophistication about national security trying to make a numerical decision about the size of the defense budget tells you everything you need to know about the bankruptcy of the current elite in this country in both parties. The fact is, we ought to first figure out what threatens us, we ought to figure out what strategies will respond to that. We should figure out what structures we need for those strategies. We should then cost them.
That shouldn't be a controversial position: We have to figure out what's needed, how to address it, and how that will cost. The fact that such obvious statements need to be made is a sign of our degenerated political debate.
Behind Closed Doors
The remark about "historically illiterate politicians" is obviously self-serving, since Newt is a historian by profession. There's nothing to be learned from that except this little maxim: Those who do not study history are doomed to repeatedly hear comments like this from those who do. But you gotta love the part where he says the Super committee process "tells you everything you need to know about the bankruptcy of the current elite in this country... in both parties."
Those are golden words. Whenever the leaders of both parties agree on something nowadays, it's something most of the public opposes. Our leaders tell us that these lawmakers need total secrecy to decide how to spend (or not spend) or tax dollars, who should be taxed, and whether or not we'll get the Social Security benefits we've paid for.Then their handiwork must be voted up or down by the whole Congress.
That's not just absurd and anti-democratic. It's cowardly.
As Gingrich says, it does tell you all you need to know about the bankruptcy of the elite in both parties. They want to make decisions that the public opposes but they don't want to pay the political price.
That's why they keep trying to come up with mechanisms to make it look as if these decisions are somehow making themselves. First there were "triggers," budget cuts that go off "automatically" like IEDs after their creators have left the scene. Now there's the Super committee.
That's not to say Newt would behave any differently in the extremely unlikely event he was ever returned to power. According to reports, he and Bill Clinton were cooking up a deal to cut Social Security behind closed doors back in the 1990s. Only the Lewinsky scandal prevented that deal from being consummated.
But give the man credit: When he's right, he's right.
The Super Committee does have its defenders, like Prof. Jordan Tama of American University, who writes in today's New York Times that "Private meetings are essential to give the committee's six Republicans and six Democrats the freedom to step away from party orthodoxies, conduct serious negotiations and search for common ground, rather than engage in political posturing."
Prof. Tama concludes: "In an age when elected officials rarely deliberate across party lines, private discussions should be welcomed, rather than attacked. This is all the more true considering that the fundamental task before the committee is not to establish facts, but to find a political sweet spot."
But wait: First the process is praiseworthy because it avoids political posturing. Then it's praiseworthy because it can find a "political sweet spot." You can't have it both ways. Either the process is political or it isn't -- and of course it's political.
What Prof. Tana calls "political posturing," the rest of the world calls "democracy." Politicians fight for their positions, and every few years the voters decide if they like what those politicians have been doing or not. The Super Committee needs to open up its deliberations -- or shut itself down.
Decline and Fall Fashions
Gingrich wasn't the only candidate to make a good point last night. Ron Paul did too. But before we get to his comments, inner Joan Rivers has an observation: Rep. Paul was also wearing a suit that was several sizes too big for him. First Gingrich, now him. Why is it that a baggy suit makes a fat man look fatter and a skinny man look skinnier?
Here's how Rep. Paul followed up on Gingrich's Super committee comments:
There's a lot of money spent in the military budget that doesn't do any good for our defense ... How does it help us to keep troops in Korea all these years? ... Why are we in Japan? ... to cut military spending is a wise thing to do. We would be safer if we weren't in so many places. We have an empire. We can't afford it. The empires always bring great nations down. We spread ourselves too thinly around the world. This is what's happened throughout history, and we're doing it to ourselves.
The most recent empire to fail was an empire that went into, of all places, Afghanistan...
I've edited these comments to remove some extraneous remarks and his repeated assertions that we're "broke" (which is an economically meaningless statement). But those comments about empire deserve a lot more attention.
Let's meet our finalists
Gingrich and Paul each said something praiseworthy, but like all of them they spent most of the evening repeating nonsensical assertions about the economy, foreign policy, and immigration. They're sideshow candidates anyway, since neither the press nor the party elite will give either one of them the time of day. (Plus, voters don't seem to like Gingrich very much.)
How did the finalists do? The probable runner-up, Rick Perry, continued to stumble badly (although inner Joan Rivers says his custom-fitted suit look great). And the likely winner, Mitt Romney, not only looked terrific (inner Joan is in love) but exuded levels of confidence, poise, and informal likeability that must've taken months of practice to achieve.
Bachmann? Inner Joan says that white with gold buttons was a bad choice, and the pseudo-military cut of her suit was too Control-era Janet Jackson. But that's somehow appropriate, since she seemed to answer every question with a "What have you done for me lately?" attack on Obama. Still, she didn't seem much like a winner.
What about our current front-runner, Herman Cain? Inner Joan likes him, but she doesn't like him that way anymore. His "9-9-9" gimmick may have gained him some temporary attention, but Republicans are finally figuring out what should have been obvious from the beginning: It has new taxes in it.
The Party's Over
We sat through the entire pageant and never got to the "talent" portion of the competition.
The probable nominee spent the night mouthing meaningless slogans and honing his highly rehearsed spontaneity. The runner-up stumbled badly, but not lethally, and is probably winning the fundamentalists away from their former heroine. The flavor of the week turned sour. But nobody said anything meaningful or new. They just repeated right-wing slogans as if they were mantras from some mad corporate guru.
Watching this whole event was like stuffing yourself with cotton candy. You feel full to the point of sickness but haven't gotten any nutrition.
Meanwhile the Super committee continues its top-secret deliberations. It will reportedly be 'briefed' on potential budget-cutting ideas today by the Senate's so-called Gang of Six.
Oh, good. That's just what this process needed: More Joe Lieberman.
That's the state of American politics today. Inner Joan Rivers and I are going off somewhere for a good cry. I know people say she's a Republican, and I'm not. But I'm sure we can agree that this ain't no way to run a country.