WASHINGTON — It is a rare day when Al Sharpton emerges as the voice of sagacity, but when Newt Gingrich has the microphone, all things are possible.
Just four weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, and swinging like a trapeze artist over the heads of his fellow Republican contenders, Gingrich has done what everyone knew he would — said something mind-blowingly wrong. Not just wrong as in incorrect, but off-the-charts insensitive, insulting and, most important, Out. Of. Touch.
He might as well have wrapped his remarks in a Tiffany’s box and handed them to Mitt Romney, who could exhale for a moment. Or to Sharpton, who finally had a justifiable excuse for outrage and scorched the earth beneath Gingrich’s feet on his MSNBC show.
Gingrich’s big idea was that kids from poor neighborhoods should work janitorial jobs at school in order to learn a work ethic. His argument was that poor kids who live in housing projects don’t see people working and therefore “literally have no habit of showing up on Monday.” Instead, they gravitate toward, you know, pimping and prostitution.
So much for the big tent. So much for diversity. Sayonara African-American vote. Hasta la vista, Paco y Maria. In one flick of the tongue, Gingrich managed to alienate all those undocumented workers he winked at a couple of weeks ago when he telegraphed during a debate that 11 million illegal immigrants would not be deported during a Gingrich presidency.
The former speaker’s fumble is precisely what some Republicans have feared and others have breathlessly anticipated. The Washington Wager was whether Gingrich could make it four weeks without self-immolating before Iowa. Or would he find himself so irresistible that he just had to express himself?
Gingrich backpedaled, saying he hadn’t meant the “working poor,” which, of course, leaves all those shiftless folks in the projects who’d rather peddle drugs and their girlfriends than get honest work as janitors. To cap things off, just in case anyone was still confused, Gingrich found fellowship with Donald Trump, who not only endorsed the idea, but agreed to help Gingrich create a program much like “The Apprentice,” where poor kids can seek to emulate The Donald. Don’t be poor, be rich like me! Hair optional.
We ask much of our candidates, perhaps too much. With such high-definition exposure over such a long period, everyone is bound to trip, or utter the irretrievably dumb thing. On the other hand, a person’s true character is often revealed with time. As with any courtship, one can hold a pose only so long.
For Republicans, the pose of Everyman has rarely been a good fit and Gingrich’s remarks may confirm more than they reveal. An echo of the decades-ago, welfare-queen stereotype, Gingrich’s comments feed an increasingly prevalent GOP meme that the jobless are somehow responsible for their plight. Before bowing out, Herman Cain averred that people who aren’t rich or employed have only themselves to blame. A panelist at a recent debate in New York between devotees of economists Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes said Hayek would advise protesters to “occupy a job.”
If only it were so simple.
Republicans have always been wedded to the idea that Americans, given opportunity, can pull themselves up by the bootstraps. In fact, most people subscribe to this very-American narrative to varying degrees. But missing from the vision of the coldest eye is acknowledgement that sometimes people have no boots.
With a degree of charity not apparent in Gingrich’s remarks, one can hypothesize about what he may have meant, such as perhaps that one can only imagine becoming what one has seen. How does a child who has never witnessed a doctor or lawyer in his everyday world imagine himself as one? Alas, Gingrich didn’t start there.
Tough times call for tough solutions, but singling out poor children is one of those random thousand-ideas-a-minute that should have gone directly into the right brain’s shredder. A better idea might have taken its place. Here’s one for the hopper: Let all children volunteer to contribute to their school’s upkeep in exchange for vouchers redeemable for privileges that school kids value. Think of it as an experiment in capitalism (work for reward) and self-esteem building (status through achievement).
It’s a capital idea both Democrats and Republicans could love. For fun, we could tax the vouchers and give a small share of earned privileges to those who chose not to participate. Talk about an education.