Newt Gingrich wants to pay poor kids to clean toilets. And all of the right people are horrified.
The Nation says Gingrich is running on "a platform that seems to have been written by the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge." The editors of the Newark Star-Ledger proclaim Gingrich wants to "bring back the days of Oliver Twist." The host of "Meet the Press," David Gregory, suggests Gingrich's take on the inner-city poor is a "grotesque distortion."
This controversy started last month at Harvard, when Gingrich suggested in a speech that perhaps the best way to break the cycle of poverty in inner cities is to break the culture of poverty that sustains it by, among other things, paying kids to do janitorial work.
"Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works," Gingrich explained recently in Iowa when asked to clarify his position. "So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of 'I do this and you give me cash,' unless it's illegal."
It's a classically Gingrichian spectacle, illuminating a lot about the presidential candidate, but also about his critics and his swarming ranks of fans.
Gingrich is a rhetorical yoga swami. As my National Review colleague Kevin Williamson says, he can shove his foot in his mouth while putting his finger on the issue. Gingrich is right about the culture of poverty, but he opens himself to easy rebuttal by speaking so sweepingly and categorically. And did he really have to pick toilet-scrubbing as his preferred workfare?
Still, what his critics don't -- or refuse to -- understand is that he's not driven by a lack of compassion, but a surplus of it. The liberal bureaucratic mind-set seems to define compassion simply as spending more money on systems and policies that have made problems worse and keep the usual special interests happy.
Gingrich thinks compassion should be measured not by inputs but outputs. Spending trillions on poverty is beyond simply uncompassionate if you waste the money and make things worse. It's evil.
Anyone who wants to understand Gingrich's views on poverty should read his March 2008 speech at the American Enterprise Institute (where I'm a visiting fellow). Gingrich rejected then-candidate Obama's suggestion that the legacy of racism combined with a failure to fund education to liberals' satisfaction "helps explain the pervasive achievement gap" in poor inner-city schools.