alien & sedition.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
  Right Makes Might Night at the Cooper Union

Justin and I managed to make it into last night's "Lincoln-inspired" debate between Newt Gingrich and Mario Cuomo, at Cooper Union's Great Hall. The tone, particularly during the various introductions, was a tad self-congratulatory - apparently the idea of substantive political discussion has become radically old-school. I don't know what to say about the fact that Cooper Union's connection with Lincoln did not involve Abe's debates with Steven Douglas, nor any exercise in bipartisan dialogue, but a speech in which Lincoln drew a clear partisan line in the sand. And I have nothing polite to say about the Great Hall's sightlines.

But all that aside, it really was a worthy event. The talk was 'moderated' by a still-hobbling Tim Russert, but - thankfully - Timmeh mostly stayed out of it, allowing Gingrich and Cuomo to drive the discussion.

Gingrich opened with another salvo aimed at the consultancy, repeating what he had said at the conservative summit about the long presidential campaign being little more than a "consultant full-employment program." I'm beginning to get the sense that Gingrich is trying to run for president by not running for president. Which isn't necessarily a bad strategy.

Certainly Newt was talking like a man who wants to be the leader of his party. First he laid out a trio of high-minded "process proposals" for the presidential campaign. He endorsed the idea of basing the campaign around a "Cooper Union dialogue," and suggested that the parties should agree to a series of bipartisan events in every key primary state, on the theory that such occasions could impose a limit on the level of rhetorical nastiness in the race. And, most interestingly, he proposed challenging every candidate in each party to agree that, upon winning the nomination, he or she would engage in nine ninety-minute Cooper Union-style "dialogues" with the other side. This, it seems to me, may be the best idea Newt Gingrich has ever had. For God's sake, imagine if we'd had that in 2004.

Displaying his simple genius for public speaking, Gingrich moved fluidly from his three process proposals to his three political points. The first was a typically Gingrichian futurist rhapsody about the boundless scientific and productive potential of the private sector, which is revolutionizing everything from cancer research to the way you eat your toast - and which contrasts sharply to the "stunning decay" of the public sector. The argument seemed to lack the subtlety that might have been required for a fairly well-informed audience - are we really supposed to listen to this without thinking of the countless innovations and technological triumphs brought to us by government research and investment? But it was a surprisingly conservative crowd, probably because the event was co-sponsored by Newt's own organization, and people seemed enthusiastic enough.

Newt's rhetorical move - and Cuomo called him on it - was to recast the failures of the Bush administration as failures of government per se. The catastrophe in New Orleans, for instance, "is largely a tragedy of government" - and here he actually blamed victims of Katrina for being uneducated and "incapable of getting out of the way of a hurricane." I try not to make angry clucking sounds in public places, but I found myself unable to resist this time. And he even upped the level of audacity - calling the Iraq war a failure of government. Not a failure of conservative government, but of government full stop. Evidently this is because some guy he knew wanted to open a factory in Iraq but the red tape got in the way. Those Sunni insurgents can do nasty things with red tape, I guess.

Newt's other points were to do with national security and health care. He argued that America was "not serious" about the threat of a Korean nuclear weapon - and if by "America" he meant "neoconservatives and the Bush administration," he was surely correct - and, not surprisingly, he made another plug for Health Savings Accounts. He delved into the world of James Bond a bit, advocating smuggling across the Korean border and sabotage at an Iranian refinery.

But the important thing - the very important thing - is not what Gingrich says (which is mostly nonsense), but how he says it. I counted at least seven actual names Gingrich cited - two fictional examples, the rest real. He talked about Kevin Matthews, a Special Forces soldier with a young baby named Dean. "I worry about Dean's future," said Newt. And he told a long story about Mike Leavitt, HHS Secretary and former governor of Utah, who went through Kafkaesque trials with his health insurance, trying to get the machines he needed to help with his sleep apnea. The lesson? Health Savings Accounts are a great thing. It makes no logical sense, but you believe it when Newt tells it to you. The foundation of Gingrich's political talk was personalized storytelling. I'm going to keep harping on this until it seems like Democrats finally get it.

It isn't that I don't love good old-fashioned liberal oratory - and nobody does it better than Mario Cuomo, who spoke with passion and fire about poverty, religion, and the need to "share benefits and burdens." Listening to Cuomo - even when, as last night, he runs fifteen minutes overtime - is a pleasure. But too many Democrats these days seem lost in an airless, focus-grouped middle-ism, struggling to articulate how their ideas matter to the lives of ordinary Americans.

And that's a shame, because it shouldn't be so hard to do. Newt Gingrich can do it with ideas that make no sense at all. So why can't we do it with good ones?

Say it with me: speak personally first, historically second, and politically last.

At Cooper Union on that day in February 1860, Lincoln called for clarity:
Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored - contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man.
Cuomo reminds us that our progressive principles matter, that they speak to the very core of the American experience - of the human experience. The problem isn't to search for some sophistical contrivance whereby these principles seem less likely to draw fire from the right or from the media. The problem is simple: to speak of these values at work in the lives of ordinary Americans. With names.

Cross-posted at Progressive Historians

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"An obscure but fantastic blog." - Markus Kolic


Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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