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Newt Gingrich and the Politics of Frustration

Staff Report

Newt Gingrich won a decisive victory in South Carolina tonight, defeating Mitt Romney by more than 10 points, after having been down by 10 points just a week ago.

How do we account for this remarkable turnaround? Obviously, the debates last week were a crucial factor. But why did he resonate so well with strong conservatives in these debates, after having been left virtually for dead immediately following New Hampshire?

It probably was not because of his policy proposals. Consider this Gingrich suggestion from the Myrtle Beach debate, which drew raucous applause.

Joe Klein reminded me that this started with an article he wrote 20 years ago. New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.

There are two ways to look at this proposal. Perhaps Gingrich is offering a federal government takeover of New York sanitation workers, so as to generate something close to full employment. From that perspective, this is certainly the most liberal policy proposal ever to be offered at a Republican debate! Alternatively, perhaps Gingrich was offering a suggestion to Mayor Michael Bloomberg on how to get more kids to work. From that perspective, it is a non sequitur, at least in the context of a presidential debate, as Gingrich does not need to be president to make the recommendation.

So what on earth was this conservative crowd applauding? It was that last sentence – “Only the elites despise earning money” – which captures the essence of this most recent Gingrich boomlet.

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Conservatives are very frustrated, and rightfully so. Their feeling is that they play by the rules – they work hard, pay their taxes, raise their kids right – but what do they get for it? Their values are mocked on television and the movies, the media castigates them as a bunch of extremists, they pay taxes while half of the country does not, and the Obama administration took to demagoguing them virtually from day one of his tenure. I know of what I speak – a few months back I was driving down the road and saw a sign in front of a business lamenting, “Where is the America I grew up in?” I nodded my head in approval.

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The Alabama Political Reporter is a daily political news site devoted to Alabama politics. We provide accurate, reliable coverage of policy, elections and government.

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