Admit it, you hate politics: the gotcha games in which a quote can be taken out of context and used as a pretext for bashing one's opponent; the sound bites replacing reasoned argument; the focus groups and pollsters who tell candidates what to say instead of encouraging them to believe in something; the concentration on gaining and then maintaining power for its own sake; the enormous cost of elections, which transforms politicians into servants of those who give the most money.
Is it possible to have cleaner and more engaging politics that challenge the mind and offer real solutions to our problems, instead of crass appeals to our lower nature, the flip-flopping in order to garner favor with a particular interest group and the insincerity that seems to be behind it all?
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich believes it is and he has developed a compelling approach to new and better politics not seen since the days of Abraham Lincoln.
Last week, Gingrich and former New York Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo returned to the site of Lincoln's speech on Feb. 27, 1860 at Cooper Union in New York City. It was a speech many scholars believe made him president. The speech was substantive (Lincoln had researched it for three months at the library in Springfield, Ill.), it was more than 7,000 words and "dispelled doubts about Lincoln's suitability for the presidency and reassured conservatives of his moderation while reaffirming his opposition to slavery to Republican progressives," in the words of Harold Holzer's book, "Lincoln at Cooper Union."
The point of the Gingrich-Cuomo "discussion" was to bring serious people together for a lengthy conversation about things that matter. I watched it on the Web (you can see it at www.americansolutions.com). It is the polar opposite of the insult to our intelligence that passes for contemporary politics.
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Gingrich, especially, was brilliant as he laid out his vision and agenda for the future. He did not indulge in overstatement when he said, "This country today faces more parallel challenges simultaneously than at any time since the 1850s. And I believe there is a grave danger that our political system will not be capable of solving these problems before they take our society apart in ways that are very destructive."
Gingrich lamented the disappearance of what he called "the principle of seriousness," noting, "The (political) process is decaying at a level that is bizarre and it's a mutual synergistic decay between candidates, consultants and the news media. It's fundamentally wrong for the survival of this country."
Gingrich believes "We are in two different worlds: a world of stunningly rapid evolution in the private sector; and a world of stunning decay in bureaucracy." He pointed to New Orleans after Katrina as one glaring example of the failure of government at all levels, while also noting the dependent culture and expectations by many that government, alone, would help them escape a natural disaster.
To find the best leaders available, Gingrich says we must discard the current model of "cattle calls of 10 people offering 30-second solutions to Iraq (which) … makes an absurdity of running for office." Instead, Gingrich proposes nine 90-minute dialogues between Labor Day and Election Day 2008 one per week in the spirit of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, with only two candidates and a timekeeper/moderator. It would be broadcast, or carried on C-Span and the Web so that "people can decide who has the maturity, knowledge and values (that can) get us out of this mess."
In an e-mail exchange, Gingrich tells me he also plans to host nationwide workshops Sept. 27 and 29 on ways to transform all 511,000 elected offices in the country. And after that, he says, "I'll consider other possibilities," which I take to mean a decision on whether to run for president.
Watch the video of the Cooper Union conversation. Though Cuomo indulges in a lot of standard Democratic boilerplate rhetoric, even he rises to the occasion near the end, impressed by Gingrich's desire for real change, regardless of who gets the credit.
I don't know if Gingrich would make the best president, but after watching his "conversation" with Mario Cuomo, I doubt there is anyone who has thought more about the problems that confront us, or who has better ideas about how to fix them.