I dont know how you feel about Newt Gingrich, but every time he is on, Im drawn to watch him. He always has a different angle, always has something substantive to say. And that, more than anything else, explains why, with all of the turmoil and embarrassments in his personal life, a party filled with conservative people still want to hear him.
It was no small tribute to him then that even out of office he was selected to give the keynote address on June 9 to the major fund-raising dinner for the Republicans in the Senate and the House. George W. Bush gave that address when he was in office, and when a Republican isnt in the White House, the privilege flows to one of the highest-ranking Republicans in office or the titular head of the party. Newt gave a stirring, summoning talk that night. The passion was modulated, the fires damped down only because Newt, with his bent toward the systematic, delivered himself of a lecture. He aims for the comprehensive. And along the way he spoke some telling lines. The most memorable, catching the central truth of the moment was this one: [T]hat [Ronald] Reagan used his rhetorical skills to shine light on truths and fundamental facts. Obama uses his rhetorical skills to hide from fundamental facts.
But past the lines that hit home, and past the evident move to be sweeping and comprehensive, he revealed in the design of his talk omissions that were quite telling. That they were intentional, and not inadvertent, was something he signaled rather clearly to anyone who was paying attention. He was making the case for the Republicans as the governing majority once again, and a majority spanning the country was bound, he said, to contain the disagreements that were in play in the politics of this vast country.
Evidently, they were not disagreements on small things; they were disagreements that mattered”otherwise they were hardly worth mentioning. Could it be that people are fiercely divided in their estimates of the co-payments and deductibles for prescription drugs? Hardly the stuff that strains cohesion in a political party”or a cocktail party. Newt suggested the differences that were truly engaged by marking two prominent Republicans who had showily separated themselves from the positions that have been more central to the character of the party in recent years:
I am happy that Dick Cheney is a Republican, I am also happy that Colin Powell is a Republican. A majority Republican Party will have lots of debates within the party. That is the nature of majorities.
Dick Cheney has been alone in defending the record of the late administration, even as President Bush has been notably reticent. If he is tagged as a dissident it could only be because he has come out, in a dramatic public way, in support of same-sex marriage. In contrast, Colin Powell endorsed Obama”a clear enough defection. It was no secret that he was the odd man out in an administration that was willing to seek regime-change abroad, rather than confining itself to an understanding of the national interest in foreign policy, quite detached from the character of the regimes that fill that outer world.
But Powell had been willing in the past to fold himself in, as Secretary of State, in an administration in which he had not always gotten his way. The issue that has marked Powells deep discomfort in settling himself in as a Republican has been the issue of abortion. For Powell”along with many older Republicans”the issue has appeared to be something grafted onto a conservative party by the religious zealots”the Christian right”who came flooding into the party in support of Ronald Reagan and made the party the dominant force it was.
In New Gingrichs speech Cheney and Powell were marked off by name, but the words abortion and marriage never escaped Newts lips or made it into his comprehensive text. Newt marked off an ellipsis, and then deliberately held back from naming the issues that were framed in the ellipsis. And those subjects that could not be named became, of course, all the more important through that studied omission. For Gingrich was a conveying just how important it was to the resurgence of the Republican party that those issues be omitted, that they be dropped from the explicit appeals of the party.
My late professor Leo Strauss, in his commentary on Machiavelli, drew attention to Machiavellis silences and omissions. He offered this rule of interpretation: When a wise man is silent on a matter that is regarded, in common opinion, as a matter of importance, he gives us to understand that, in his own judgment, it is not that important after all. Newt has made it clear that when it comes to leading the Republicans back, their appeal to the broad electorate should not mention these vexing issues of abortion and marriage. From one side this may be a matter simply of prudence”the reading of a political man that these are not the issues that gain a resonance at this moment among voters who are at the edge of life-changing falls in the economy.
The accents in Newts speech may not indicate a desire to purge these issues from the deep concerns of the party. After all, people voted for Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes with no interest in the life issues and they managed to elect pro-life administrations. Nor did the country elect Barack Obama in order to produce the most radical pro-abortion administration the country has seen”nevertheless, that is what the electorate brought forth. If the Republicans are returned to the White House and the control of Congress, the government will be directed by a deeply pro-life party. Unless, that is, the party has absorbed the lesson that Newt is now imparting: that these issues, in the scale of things, are just not all that important.
But is that really the case, either in principle or in political calculations? The political embarrassment for Newt is that these issues are net winners. The pro-life side, when taken up by candidates, has generally produced an advantage of about five percent at the polls. The country is still decisively on the side of preserving marriage, and resisting same-sex marriage, even if the elites have been weakening in their resolve. African American turnout in California gave the edge of victory to Proposition 8 in overturning same-sex marriage. In fact, the black community would offer a deep source of allies in its opposition to same-sex marriage and its aversion to abortion.
Abortion is widely practiced among blacks, and yet these communities know that they are the target rich places for Planned Parenthood and its clinics. But the conservatism of the black community on these moral questions is not taken up, cultivated, or sustained by the black political leadership and the patrons it depends on in the Democratic party.
And so the curiosity of our late annals of political cleverness: The Republicans are persistently enjoined to reach out to African Americans. But the people doing the enjoining somehow never notice that the most promising points of connection would come about in joining forces with the black community on abortion and marriage. We are enjoined to reach out to black people mainly by accepting schemes of racial preferences, which offer no benefits to most African Americans, and which most of them have been reluctant”as surveys attest”to endorse. Most black Americans still profess to favor color-blindness.
But beyond the political calculations, what about the question in principle? Why would the issues of marriage and the destruction of 1.2 million innocent lives each year in abortion be reckoned as somehow matters of lesser moment, secondary or peripheral in importance”or not even worth mentioning? In an explicit appeal to first principles Newt followed Lincoln in invoking the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln regarded that proposition, as he called it, all men are created equal, as the father of all moral principle in us.
Newt quickly made the connection to the rights that sprang first from principle, the rights to life and liberty. Or, more precisely, our rights not to have our lives taken, our liberties restricted, without justification. From there Newt could make a jolting connection back to the current political scene: A government monopoly in the provision of medical care portended rationing, price controls, the driving out of doctors, and finally the curtailment of treatment, especially for older Americans. The Obama program for national health was in fact a life-shortening measure.
But if the prospect of shortening the lives of Americans has a ring of urgency for Newt, why would the actual killing of people on a mass scale”the poisoning or dismembering of 1.2 million human beings in the womb, in America every year”not have about it a ring even more urgent? Among our founders, James Wilson taught that if we have natural rights, they begin when we begin to be. And for that reason, as Wilson said, the common law casts its protection over human life when the infant is first able to stir in the womb. Didnt Newt himself invoke the principle of all men are created equal? Robert George recently had the occasion to explain in this vein the understanding that separated President Obama from those of us who take seriously that proposition in the Declaration. We continue to think, as he said, that every member of the human family, simply by virtue of his or her humanity, is truly created equal:
We reject the idea that . . . those of us who are equal in worth and dignity are equal by virtue of some attribute other than our common humanity”some attribute that unborn children have not yet acquired, justifying others in treating them, despite their humanity, as non-persons, as objects or property, even as disposable material for use in biomedical research.
Again, it was Newt who invoked all men are created equal. But did he not mean it, or mean it the way the Founders meant it? If so, has he curiously aligned himself, not with Lincoln, but with the adversaries of Lincoln, in deftly removing a whole of class of human beings from the circle of rights-bearing beings? But even apart from his understanding of the principle, there is a matter of coherence. If we seek to deal now with the urgent problems of the American people, what are the harms to be averted, and whose harms count ? Are we concerned with people who may lose their jobs or their homes? But in the scale of things, the protection of life takes precedence over the loss of property. And if it is painful to suffer impoverishment, how would that compare to the pain of suffering dismemberment or poisoning in the womb? In any plausible scale, Newt could not account for his downgrading of the killing in abortion”unless of course, those injuries just do not count, because those human lives do not really count in the same way as other lives.
From another angle, Newts position here is hardly news. For years the word on Capitol Hill was that he regarded the issue of abortion as part of the Republican past. It was not, for him, part of the themes for the party going forward. Whether his recent religious conversion here has made any difference, he may be reluctant to say. But it is even plainer that his personal situation has disarmed him in speaking on the issue of marriage. The revolutions in his marital life have made it indecorous for him to speak, and he obviously knows that. The melancholy fact, though, is that this is a case in which the travails of private life have impaired him in using his arts as a public man in speaking on the public issues that run to the very matrix and ground of our laws: The laws that constitute families, along with the terms of principle on which new life is begotten and nurtured.
Newt is one of our most gifted public men, and Ill never stop listening to him. His vocation now is that of teacher and counselor. But if there is a Republican resurgence, he cannot lead it. And if there is a coherent account of the Republican Party and its purpose in our politics, it cannot be the truncated account that Newt now delivers”the only account he has the conviction or the standing to offer.
Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.