Newt Gringrich hit a nerve. No, wait. He hit nerves no one wants to talk about.
In an interview this week with the Washington Post, the former speaker of the House who led the charge to slash social programs during the Clinton presidency, said President Obama and the Democrats would regret pushing to pass the health care bill. Gingrich called the bill "the most radical social experiment . . . in modern times,'' so radical that Obama and the Democrats "will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years.''
The Post said the quote referred to civil rights bills enacted under Johnson. Gingrich said that was not what he meant. In a correction, the Post wrote, "Gingrich said he was referring not to the civil rights legislation but to Johnson overreaching on his management of the economy, the Vietnam War and the cultural divisions that emerged partly because of that war. Gingrich said Johnson erred on civil rights by supporting busing to integrate schools and by failing to take a firmer stance against racial violence in urban areas.''
By clarifying, Gingrich helps us get why health care became the most divisive social-program debate since Gingrich's successful attack on welfare in the 1990s, an attack that had racial overtones. Health care is breaking the backs of millions of families of all colors, but the Republicans chose to gin up the masses with unbridled fear, with House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio declaring the vote "Armageddon.''
It was Armageddon all right, a battle between selfishness and sharing. Some Americans who believe health care reform represents a heist of "their'' resources for the undeserving betrayed their underlying feelings as Democratic congressmen were either called the N word or spat upon, a Latino congressman was called a "wetback,'' and Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, who is gay, was called the F word.
No Republican had the courage to remind the rabid that America, at other great crossroads, did put government into their lives. The wealth of countless white middle class families today stems from World War II veteran housing bills that too often, we conveniently forget, discriminated against black veterans along with housing segregation. Surely, more than one tea partier has Medicare or uses a VA hospital. Yet most Republicans do anything they can to deflect responsibility for the frenzy.
None is more representative than Gingrich who, after saying there was of course no place for such behavior, told the Journal-Constitution, "I think the Democratic leadership has to take some real responsibility (for choosing) to use corrupt tactics that bought votes, that bullied people and as a result has enraged much of the American people.''
Some things just add up. The vast majority of tea partiers, at least from all the photos, are white and the nearly all-white Republican congressional delegation stood as a brick wall against reform. The rage around health care, going back to the disruptions of Democratic legislator town halls last summer, continues to raise the temperature not just on health care, but on the dangerous debate on who is a "true blue'' American.
One cannot forget how, in a last gasp before Obama's election, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said of Obama, "I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America as you and I do.'' One cannot forget the level of disrespect shown to Obama in the "You lie!'' outburst by South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson. Wilson has been rewarded for his outburst with the most campaign contributions of anyone in the House, $3.4 million in the 2010 election cycle.
In the final stages of the health care debate, Palin and other Republican leaders resorted to telling their masses to "reload'' or get ready for the "firing line'' in November. Republican Congressman Randy Neugebauer had to apologize for shouting "baby killer'' when anti-abortion Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan gave his support for the health care bill. The Republicans need to find someone with courage to disarm the rhetoric, before someone reloads for real.