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Been There, Thought That

Eugene Robinson
Contributor
EUGENE ROBINSON uses his twice-weekly column in The Washington Post to pick American society apart and then put it back together again in unexpected, and revelatory, new ways. To do this job of demolition and…
Eugene Robinson

Can we please bury the notion that Newt Gingrich is some kind of deep thinker? His intellect may be as broad as the sea, but it’s about as deep as a birdbath.

I’m not saying the Republican presidential front-runner is unacquainted with ideas. Quite the contrary: Ideas rain through his brain like confetti, escaping at random as definitive pronouncements about this or that. But they are other people’s ideas, and Gingrich doesn’t bother to curate them into anything resembling a consistent philosophy. Given enough time, I’m convinced, he will take every position on every issue.

The week’s most vivid example of Gingrich’s intellectual promiscuity sent principled conservatives into apoplexy. Mitt Romney, his chief opponent for the GOP nomination, had called on Gingrich to return the $1.6 million in consulting fees he received from housing giant Freddie Mac. Gingrich replied that he would “be glad to listen” if Romney would first “give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees” during his time as head of the investment firm Bain Capital.

If this were a column about Gingrich’s hypocrisy, the point would be that he has been scorchingly critical of Freddie Mac while at the same time accepting tons of the firm’s money. But this is about his shallowness — and the fact that in blasting Romney he adopted the ideas and rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street.

Republicans are supposed to believe that “bankrupting companies and laying off employees” is something to celebrate, not bemoan, because this is seen as the way capitalism works. Even in the heat of a campaign, no one who has thought deeply about economics and adopted the conservative viewpoint — which Gingrich wants us to believe he has done — could possibly commit such heresy.

Gingrich doesn’t just borrow ideas from the protesters he once advised to “get a job, right after you take a bath.” He’s as indiscriminate as a vacuum cleaner, except for a bias toward the highfalutin and trendy.

Take his solution for making the federal government so efficient that we could save $500 billion a year: a management system called Lean Six Sigma. There’s no way Gingrich could resist such a shiny bauble of jargon. Why, the name even includes a letter of the Greek alphabet — the sort of erudite touch that a distinguished professor of history, such as Gingrich, could not fail to appreciate.

I won’t argue with the corporate executives who say that Lean Six Sigma works wonders for their firms. But is a technique developed by Motorola to reduce the number of defects in its electronic gear really applicable to government? There’s no reason to think it would be, unless you somehow restructured government to introduce competition and a genuine, not simulated, profit motive. I guess Professor Gingrich will get back to us on that; at the moment, he’s too busy playing with his new piece of management-speak.

Another example is Gingrich’s bizarre claim last year that “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior” was the key to understanding President Obama. Aside from being one of the stranger, least comprehensible utterances by a prominent American politician in recent memory — and that’s saying something — it was also completely unoriginal. Gingrich was citing and endorsing a hallucinatory piece in Forbes by Dinesh D’Souza. It was merely the idea du jour.

Gingrich finds it hard to watch an intellectual fad pass by without becoming infatuated. Do you remember Second Life, the digital realm? In 2007, he told us it was “an example of how we can rethink learning” and potentially “one of the great breakthroughs of the next 10 years.” I know Second Life still exists, but have you heard a lot about it recently? Has it changed your world?

Gingrich didn’t originate the idea of solving the health insurance problem through an individual mandate, but he supported it — before bitterly opposing it. Nor was he saying anything new last week when he made the offensive claim that Palestinians are an “invented people.” His xenophobic views about the alleged threat to the United States from Islam and Shariah law are in conflict with earlier statements praising immigration and the melting pot as great American strengths. But for Gingrich, the word “contradiction” has no meaning. His discourse knows no past and no future, just the glib opportunism of now.

Gingrich’s debating technique is dogmatic insistence, rather than persuasion. I guess he realizes that to convince someone of an idea, first he would have to understand it.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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