Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Gingrich Nearly Almost Right

I come not to bury Newt Gingrich but to praise him.

It all began on March 21 when Washington Post syndicated columnist Dan Balz wrote

But former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama and the Democrats will regret their decision to push for comprehensive reform. Calling the bill "the most radical social experiment . . . in modern times," Gingrich said: "They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years" with the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

The following day, under the headline "Clarifying Gingrich on LBJ," Balz explained

Gingrich responded with several emails saying that the context misrepresented his views by implying that he believed Johnson was wrong to sign the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s. To the contrary, he said, the civil rights revolution of 1956-1965 was "morally absolutely necessary" for the country and Johnson was correct in pushing for the legislation. Other Johnson actions, he said, inflicted more damage to the Democratic coalition.

Johnson shattered his party, Gingrich went on to say, because he had "grotesquely overreached" in four areas: mismanagement of the economy, the failure in Vietnam, the cultural divisions that emerged in part over Vietnam and later civil rights initiatives. Johnson's mistake on civil rights, he said, was not in signing major legislation but in later getting ahead of the country by supporting school busing and failing to take a firmer stance against racial violence in the cities.

Gingrich overreacted- not unlike most of his party- when he referred to health care reform as "the most radical social experiment.... in modern times." But Democrats had a similar (360 degree difference) reaction. James Clyburn, the third highest in rank of House Democrats, called it "the Civil Rights Act of the 21st century" and President Obama himself modestly commented

In the end what this day represents is another stone firmly laid in the foundation of the American dream. Tonight, we answered the call of history as so many generations of Americans have before us. When faced with crisis, we did not shrink from our challenges. We overcame them. We did not avoid our responsibilities, we embraced it. We did not fear our future, we shaped it.

Foundation of the American dream. The call of history. We shaped our future. Passage of health care legislation is truly the most significant action of a government in the history of the world, or so Clyburn, Obama, and Gingrich imply.

Give the Georgia Democrat, then, a partial pass on his overheated rhetoric. His assertion that civil rights legislation "shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years" also is partially true.

The Democratic Party was not "shattered," inasmuch as three Democratics have since been elected to the presidency and Congress has been under Democratic control for most of the period. But perhaps Gingrich actually was referring to the destruction of the Democratic Party in the South, given that President Johnson, upon signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, famously told aide Bill Moyers "we have lost the South for a generation." It was obviously a prescient remark, even more so because it now has been over two generations, with little indication of being halted.

Succumbing to the clarion call of political correctness, Gingrich, under fire for implying that Democrats made a strategic error in addressing civil wrongs, on Monday chose not to clarify his remark by noting that he was merely talking politics, not policy. Instead, he suggested that economic mismanagement and the Vietnam War destroyed the Democratic coalition.

Nonsense. Despite the short-term harm done to Democratic office-seekers by the Vietnam War and economic troubles, the long-term damage to the Democratic Party has taken place in the American Southeast. And that has been- or was- largely, though not entirely, because of race.

In a paper (pdf) entitled "Barack Obama And The South," Charles S. Bullock III (p. 11) found

Obama ran as well among African Americans in the South as in the rest of thenation but had substantially less appeal to southern whites than nationwide. The exit polls show Obama receiving 43% of the white vote across the nation. In the South, he comes up just short of 30% of the white vote.

The argument is not refuted by conceding that any national Democrat does worse among whites in the South than elsewhere. Long ago- as LBJ predicted- Democrats in the south (and elsewhere, to less effect) became identified in the public's mind with support of racial minorities. Defend Southerners against the charge of racism, if you will; unquestionably, however, race has been a more salient isue in the South and revolt against the Democratic Party among whites thus inevitably has been greater in the Southeast than elsewhere.

So the former Speaker and outspoken conservative was on to something, initially, when he made a connection between passage of civil rights legislation and the political impact upon the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, his clarification, probably motivated by fear, made less sense.

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