Screaming Joe Wilson: Newt Gingrich's Frankenstein

Joe Wilson of South Carolina -- the guy who blurted "you lie!" during the President's speech last week in Congress. Institutionally speaking, he is Newt Gingrich's love-child.

Let me explain: Gingrich might be everyone's favorite climate change convert, a mellowed pol with a gay daughter, but remember the Contract with America? It was an election stunt in 1994 that helped propel conservatives to power in the House of Representatives and put then-Speaker Gingrich in charge. It was the year that resulted in severe damage to the First Branch of Government. The House of Representatives was dramatically altered in 1995, after Gingrich ascended. If congressional politics are inside baseball, Gingrich completely upended the playing field. Truth be told, he plowed it under. His intent was to consolidate power -- and he did it with familiar conservative tactics -- the same ones used to dismantle government and regulation all across the public sector: politicize, de-professionalize, privatize.

His victim on Capitol Hill was the policy support system for Congress -- a large internal network of long term staff people and organizations with expertise on issues like environment, security, technology, energy, nuclear arms and hunger. These individuals were dedicated to the whole institution -- helping Democrats and Republicans alike. They were a vital part of the institutional memory -- the memory of collective interests. They were the conveners of common goals. These staff provided places to float trial balloons, demystify "opponents" and build political space for compromise. They gathered ideas, created opportunities for relationships and helped members be better champions of all the American people -- not just the people who could pay. Gingrich wiped them out in 1995. He lobotomized the peoples' House. He made us dumb on purpose.

Newt's chickens have come home to roost. But during the 1990s, the conservatives were not squawking during speeches, they were organizing. They had amassed legions of attractive and articulate advocates in think tanks and in the lobbying houses of K Street. They had field commanders in trade associations and in the non-profit world. They had matching talking points and perfect press releases. They enjoyed ideological retreats in nice places sponsored by corporate sugar daddies. They responded with open arms when Gingrich spun off the public sector inside Congress. They embraced the public agenda and then yanked it to the right. Joe Wilson isn't an accident, he's an outcome.

I came to DC in the late 90s from California -- and found myself fighting a precise and steeled army. My side was a well meaning and soulful pick-up team. It was the Stepford Wonks versus the Partridge Family. It is better now, but we still have a long way to go. Witness the health care debate. Why is it even a question that citizen-taxpayers have to wait in line to be served by their government? Why is it even a question that private, commercial interests get a bigger seat at the table just by whining?

If you get angry at how Congress behaves today ... seeming to lack an over-arching strategic vision, seeming so bitter and antagonistic at the expense of the entire country -- like Mr. Wilson -- it is helpful to understand the anthropology behind what Gingrich did. Community institutions are like any asset of civilization -- they require effort, resources, risk taking and constant care. They are fundamentally about relationships. They train us to be civil and respectful. For this reason, community building doesn't fully fit into privatized or commercial designs. It also doesn't fight back when attacked. The anti-government crusade of conservatives has come full circle now. A constituent yelled "get the government's hands off my medicare!" at a Town Hall meeting. Where to begin? This past Saturday the tea-baggers were in DC for a rally. I asked a group of them if they liked the beautiful Mall and all the government buildings. They smiled and said yes. Where to begin? They don't even know what they hate. They remind me of the "survivalists" in my home town. The ones with WiFi who are lucky to stay alive between trips to Denny's.

Free market claptrap on the right is as dated and unhelpful as claims about evil capitalism on the left. Adam Smith -- the economic guru of conservatives -- would be mortified to see what conservative ideologues have done with his socially generous ideas about markets. Smith's goal was to have a carefully regulated market aid in the development of prosperity like an "invisible hand." His was a collective philosophy based on self-interest. Now the social part is optional. The conservative triumph in turning Americans against government is not a direct causal relationship. But it has warped our expectations of social obligation. Most Americans never intended for the "invisible hand" to be at their throat. Like the billionaires who just walked with our retirement savings, or war profiteers in Iraq, or our shameful response to New Orleans.

The world is begging for better institutions. For problem solving rules and relations, i.e. for government.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, government is our military's counter-terrorism strategy. It is an obvious common good, mostly because of its absence. For such a prosperous and successful country, Americans have relatively few things that unite us: a language, some symbols, a few songs, a government. All things considered, we've done really well as a nation built on a balance between cooperation and self-interest. This is all at risk. Joe Wilson proved it last week.

Newt Gingrich is no dummy. He claims to be a lover of our democratic institutions. But he must know something about cause and effect. I wonder if he gasped to see a white southerner call our first African American president a liar in the middle of his health care address. Newt is a smart guy. Every time I've heard him speak, he places events in context. He must know then that Joe Wilson is his Frankenstein. An experiment gone hideously wrong. And it doesn't stop there. This past July, Gingrich gave a speech about national security. He decried our current situation as unprepared, unable to meet new threats. He described our leadership as unimaginative and even ignorant. Just one question, Mr. Gingrich. Wasn't that the plan?