Has someone kidnapped Newt Gingrich and put an impostor in his place? Many who witnessed his return from self-imposed exile Tuesday at a dinner with Republican activists were left wondering where the real Gingrich had gone.
In an address setting out the GOP agenda for the fall, Gingrich presented a sterile checklist: tax cuts, term limits, shifting one-third of IRS personnel to drug enforcement and border patrol. There was no unifying theme to reinvigorate a dejected GOP. There was no whiff of a moral vision.
Was this the same man who, on the day he first wielded the speaker's gavel, asked: "How can any American read about an 11-year-old buried with his teddy bear because he killed a 14-year-old, and then another 14-year-old killed him, and not have some sense of, 'My God, where has this country gone?'"
Was this the same man who, on the night of the Million Man March, said: "I don't think that any white conservative anywhere in America ought to look at Louis Farrakhan and just condemn him, without asking yourself where were you when the children died, where were you when the schools failed, where were you when they had no hope, and unless we're prepared to roll up our sleeves, reach out and say, 'I'll give you an alternative.'"
But there was no alternative offered on Tuesday night. Instead, the speaker told us that the Republican agenda could be reduced to six words: "Earn more, keep more, do more."
The problem with this trilogy is that it has no moral imperative. Why, at the very least, wasn't it "Earn more, keep more, give more"? Is giving too soft a word for the "Leave Us Alone" coalition?
A call to "do more" can mean anything: do more volunteering if I feel like it; do more gambling if I feel like it; do more traveling or do more mentoring; do more parenting or do more golfing. Do whatever as long as you do more.
It is morally irresponsible for the party that wants to end failed social programs not to address what is going to replace them.
Newt Gingrich knows that renewing America will require everyone's involvement -- from churches to neighborhoods to corporations to individuals. As government recedes, political leaders must issue a call to action.
The night after Gingrich's speech, I met in Boston with the Rev. Gene Rivers, head of a coalition of 37 inner-city black churches working to reduce violence and rebuild their communities. For him, the biggest challenge is "pulling brothers out of gangs and helping them turn their lives around." And he is feeling deserted by the political establishment -- right and left.
"For Gingrich to keep asserting that the Great Society has failed," Rivers told me, "is somewhat less than a revelation to those of us in the trenches. The challenge is for Republican leaders to mobilize real private resources on the ground to produce measurable outcomes."
For Rivers, Gingrich's prescriptions are a woefully inadequate response to the tragic problems he is facing every day. In fact, in the not-too-distant past, Gingrich himself was talking about the need "to establish ... a sense of urgency. Every day that children are trapped in the current failed system, their lives are weakened and their future made more dismal."
Millions of children are leading increasingly dismal lives in America today. A conservative revolution that reduces taxes, spending and the role of government can only succeed if it includes a vision for the most vulnerable in our communities.
Gingrich is uniquely equipped to use the bully pulpit to inspire private-sector alternatives to the compulsory compassion of the welfare state. Instead, he wasted precious energy last Tuesday night in a bizarre defense of inarticulateness in American politics. Comparing 1996 to 1896, he said that "the country rejected the more articulate, more aggressive, better personal campaigner in Bryan, and elected the solid, organized team led by McKinley."
In fact, William McKinley won not because he was inarticulate but because, in a time of ferment, he reassured Americans that the private enterprise they were engaged in was a noble, as well as a profitable, undertaking.
Different times require different leaders. Today, Americans need to be challenged -- not reassured.
The best thing Gingrich can do for Dole is not to rummage through history for successful precedents of inarticulate leaders but to be an inspiring leader himself. And just about the worst thing he can do for Dole is to begin sounding like him, substituting check lists for passion.
The Dolification of the leader of the Republican revolution is the surest way to guarantee its trouncing at the polls in November.
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