Probably the most substantive exchange of the Presidential campaign took place within the past two weeks. But it wasn’t between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, or between John McCain and either of those two. It was between Barack Obama and Newt Gingrich.
In an address in Philadelphia on March 18, just across from Independence Hall, Obama said,
By investing in our schools and our communities…at this moment in this election, we can come together and say [to those who would distract us from real issues], Not this time. This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn, that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids; they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a twenty first century economy. Not this time.
Gingrich interpreted these words, and the rest of the speech, as calling for a real dialogue, not a political debate, about what real change would seriously address these and similar problems throughout modern American society. So that is what he offered in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on March 28.
Gingrich began effectively saying to Obama, I know exactly what you mean, quoting Lincoln:
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
But then Gingrich put his finger on the real problem with Obama’s thinking, saying, “We talk about change, and then we do more of what we are already doing.” Throughout this campaign, and his entire political career, Obama has never, and will never, say or do anything to challenge any of the verities of the Left. In the end, his supposed change always seems to hearken back to the tried and failed, Big Government policies of the 1960s, or even the 1930s.
Gingrich pointed out the disastrous failure of these policies with the example of Detroit, where the Left has been in total control for half a century now:
Detroit in 1950 had 1,800,000. Last year, it dropped below 900,000…It dropped from being the number one per capita income city in the United States to ranking number sixty-second…[I]n the past three years, Detroit had three times the outmigration rate of any other city in the United States.
Obama said in his March 18 speech:
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Obama’s speech suggested as a solution only even more funding for inner city schools, following the left-wing union playbook precisely. But Gingrich countered:
The Detroit schools are the third or fourth most expensive schools in the country. They’re a disaster….The best estimate of the Gates Foundation was that a freshman entering the Detroit school system had one chance in four of graduating on time. Three out of four children in Detroit are being cheated by one of the most expensive school bureaucracies in America….An entrepreneur offered $200 million to develop charter schools in Detroit and was rejected on the grounds that he was obviously a white racist attempting to overturn the black power structure.
The fact is all across the country the government is spending more on failing inner city schools than on suburban schools. More money is not the answer.
Gingrich explained what would be necessary if Obama wanted to bring about real change in the nation’s schools:
And if Senator Obama is serious about helping children in urban America, he will have to question whether or not in fact he’s prepared to automatically reinforce the lockstep power of the National Education Association, which is the largest single provider of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Now if we’re going to have an honest conversation about poverty in America, then let’s have an honest conversation about poverty in America. The number one problem with expensive large urban schools is they are failed bureaucracies protected by political unions that refuse to change.
But based on Obama’s speech he is not preparing to take on anything like this battle.
Gingrich identified as the root cause of these disastrous policy failures of the Left as “bad culture and bad government.” Gingrich said:
The tragic truth is that at the end of segregation, the great moment of opportunity for African-Americans, we had a failure of government and a failure of culture. The rise of big bureaucracy in the Great Society starting in 1965 combined with the rise of a counterculture which despised middle class values and which taught the poor patterns and habits of destruction — and those two patterns of bad bureaucracy reinforcing bad culture have led to a disaster.
Gingrich offered as a successful example of real change the 1996 reforms of the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC), which he led the Republican Congress to enact. Those reforms sent the program back to the states with block grants of the Federal funds, under a requirement that welfare be provided in return for work by the able bodied.
With the states keeping the savings from finding jobs for the poor, but paying for any higher expenses, they dramatically reduced the old AFDC rolls by close to 60% nationwide, a bigger success than even the reform advocates, going back to Ronald Reagan, would dare to predict. After the reform:
[E]mployment of never married mothers increased by nearly 50%, of single mothers who are high school dropouts by 66%, and of young single mothers ages 18 to 24 by nearly 100%. The child poverty rate fell from 20.8% to in 1995 to 17.8% in 2004, lifting 1.6 million children out of poverty. The poverty rate among black children fell from 41.5% in 1995 to 32,9% in 2004. The poverty rate also fell from 53.1% to 39.8% for children from single-mother families.
These same reforms should now be extended to the other major federal welfare programs, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and federal housing programs, as well as the dozens of smaller federal welfare programs. Send them back to the states where they can be reformed from the bottom up with an expanded focus on work, private health insurance, even home ownership, creating a new modern welfare program to achieve middle class prosperity for the previously poor.
To create jobs, Gingrich emphasized:
In a healthy society, you want the smallest possible tax rate because you want the maximum resources with people who know how to create jobs. And the choice is simple, do you make the politician or the bureaucrat more powerful by giving them more money, or do you make the job creator more effective by letting them keep their money. But does anyone seriously want to argue that the bureaucrat is more likely to create the next million jobs than the entrepreneur?
Gingrich also argued for a cultural change encouraging more African Americans and other minorities to go into business because, “a generation of entrepreneurs can mop up poverty at a rate no bureaucracy can imagine.”
In his latest book, Real Change, Gingrich also argues extensively for personal accounts for Social Security, which would provide an historic breakthrough in personal prosperity for working people. Between that book and this speech, it looks like Gingrich is really the one who has the audacity of hope to argue for sweeping real change for America.
Peter Ferrara is director of entitlement and budget policy for the Institute for Policy Innovation, and general counsel for the American Civil Rights Union.