The year 1989 was marked by many monumental events that would reverberate for years to come; from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism to Tiananmen Square. One event that is often overlooked was a turning point in American politics that ultimately would lead to the death of true political debate and the gridlock and obstruction we see today.
On May 31, 1989, House Speaker Jim Wright relinquished his office rather than bankrupt himself fighting off thin ethics charges brought by Republican backbencher Newt Gingrich. Gingrich liked to quote Mao that “politics was war without blood” as he believed that Republicans not only had to fight the Democrats with “the scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil war” but that their only path to power lay in tearing down the institution itself by sullying its reputation in the eyes of the public.
That is exactly what Gingrich and his fellow ultra-conservative “jihadists” (as they were called by moderate Republicans) did, as throughout the 1980s they lobbed attack after attack on the House Democratic leadership that culminated in what has been referred to as ”an all-out vilification campaign against” Wright.
In stepping down, Wright prophetically warned of the danger presented by the Gingrich and his fellow "warriors".
[It is] grievously hurtful to our society when vilification becomes an accepted form of political debate [or when] vengeance becomes more desirable than vindication [and personal attacks] drown out the quiet logic of serious debate.
It is often noted that the truth is the first casualty of war and Gingrich’s civil war was no different. For Gingrich, Wright was just a warm up. As Speaker, Gingrich issued a manual of vilification called Language: A Key Mechanism of Control instructing Republican candidates to use words such as “corrupt," "disgrace," “radical,” and “traitors” to define their Democratic opponents into minority party status without regard to the merit of such an attack.
Gingrich may be gone but his conservative "warriors" dominate what is left of the Republican Party and engage in hyper-Gingrich speak as they oppose President Obama at every turn. To them the stimulus package – which included the largest tax cut in history - was tyranny and socialism and Obama was a fascist dictator. No wonder true political debate today is dead since the far right now comes armed not only with their distinct philosophy but their own “facts” and anyone who does not subscribe to both – even if he may be Commander in Chief - is dismissed as not being a true American. With such a mindset there can be no middle ground.
Gingrich-speak was evident in this summer’s “debate” over health care which principally consisted of Democrats trying to respond to a Republican misinformation campaign – gleefully parroted by right wing media outlets and talking heads - featuring baseless claims over death panels, abortion and undocumented aliens. This led Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein to declare that
[b]y poisoning the political well, the [Republicans have] given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.
It is not just health care, however, as was evident by the recent smear campaign that the Obama administration is full of Marxist revolutionaries because his Communications Director quoted Mao; or the September 12th "tea-bagger" march on Washington for which Fox News and others used images and quotes from previous rallies to inflate attendance by 2400%.
Democrats have to respond to “Gingrich speak” by calling it for what it truly is; -- propaganda, lies and an attempt to deliberately mislead the American people (something I did on the air in stepping down from what had become a decidedly slanted radio show). In addition, Democrats should heed the words of another former House Speaker -- Sam Rayburn -- who once said that “a jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”
That is what the Democrats need to do – build by acting on the agenda that got them elected. Now is not the time for caution since with each “barn” they build, the Republican's dire warnings will begin to ring hollow; just as Republican claims that the Obama stimulus plan would lead to a depression look foolish now that the recovery has begun and strong growth is projected for 2010.
Twenty years ago, while the world shed tears of joy as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, ultra-conservative Republicans were building their own wall at home to mislead and divide the American public. If Democrats can tap the same resolve and courage shown in Berlin and move forward on their agenda, the Gingrich wall may fall at last and revive American political debate in the process.