Just back from a “town hall” meeting held by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, at Tulane University in New Orleans.
These kinds of events are difficult for candidates’ advance teams to plan sometimes. Candidates don’t want to be turning too many people away (especially when those same people have been lining up for a long time in the baking sun). But they also don’t want to be speaking to half-empty rooms (or stadiums, as was the case for Mitt Romney’s big economic policy address last month), lest that become the story for the gathered media. Still, judging by the line outside when I entered, many of the students wouldn’t have made it into a venue that at a quick count looked like it would only have held about 260 people.
There was a quick introduction by the Louisiana Republican Party chair, Roger Villere, who echoed what Tulane University Prof. Brian Brox suggested to me yesterday when he said that the prospects for Barack Obama in the state were bleak (Louisiana hasn’t gone Democrat in the presidential election since Bill Clinton was running for re-election in 1996).
Gingrich spoke largely through a series of anecdotes to underscore his message that America needs to think big (except when it comes to government, which he suggests is responsible for many of the ills facing the United States today).
One story harked back to the 1970s, when oil crises prompted the U.S. to introduce odd-even day gas pump rationing under which drivers were only allowed to buy gas based on the last digit of their license plate. Gingrich said that the job for some young people with more than one car was to go down to the garage with a screwdriver each day and make sure that the car that needed filling up had the right license plate on it. This led to one of his red meat lines – the question of what the difference is between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives, he said, would reflexively want to change the rules. Liberals, apparently, would decide to set up a license plate police force.
The line drew a few laughs, but also underscores one of the biggest problems facing the country – how divisive and toxic political discourse has become. There wasn’t any particular need to make the jab at a student event, and this “them and us” worldview is one of the reasons why Washington is so paralyzed. You can no longer, it seems, respectfully and intelligently disagree. Disagreement now means you’re either a fool, a fascist or a communist, depending on your political persuasion.
One student half-raised this issue, asking the former speaker of the House of Representatives how he would try to be bi-partisan. Gingrich said that if elected president, he would sit down with every congressman and senator individually to hear what they had to say. The party’s leaderships are to blame for the gridlock in Washington, Gingrich suggested, because they are too partisan. This, though, is hard to square with the fact that it is the very junior and recent influx of Tea Partiers that has steered the Republican Party rightward.
Gingrich also gamely defended his U.S. moon base plan, noting that when John F. Kennedy pledged in 1961 to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade, the United States hadn’t even managed to send someone into orbit.
“I decided to run for president because we need a visionary conservative,” he said. “Big ideas matter…In the long-run, someone needs to represent the idea that we can be the greatest country in history.”
Right now though, as the sign saying “Drill here, Drill now, Pay less” that was stuck to the front of his podium suggests, Americans have more immediate worries on their minds.