Friday, January 27, 2012

Newt's figment VIII: Shooting the moon

In recent days on the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich, the presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex, has reawakened his inner John F. Kennedy with a return to an idea that’s captured his imagination before — an idea that, flying as it does in the face of enormous economic challenges, is out of this world. Literally.

On Wednesday, at a campaign stop in Cocoa, Florida — site of next Tuesday’s Republican primary — Gingrich addressed supporters on the so-called Space Coast, reanimating a long-held dream, and playing to a crowd of former and current workers at the Kennedy Space Center, itself the location of historic triumphs and contemporary travail for the U.S. space program.

Never missing an opportunity to make a pitch tailored to local concerns, Gingrich sketched out his plan, starting with a tribute to the genesis of the modern space program, with John F. Kennedy’s colossal gauntlet throwdown in May 1961.

“It’s one of the great periods of developments in human history, and they just did it,” Newt said of the space pioneers.

“I come at space from a standpoint of a romantic belief that it really is part of our destiny, and it has been tragic to see what has happened to our space program over the last 30 years …”

Newt said his idea for colonizing space would revive Americans’ sense of achieving something “big and bold and heroic.”

“I will as president encourage the introduction of the Northwest Ordinance for Space to put a marker down that we want Americans to think boldly about the future ...”

“By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American," the former House Speaker said in adding flesh to the exotic bones of an idea to put Americans back on the moon by the year 2020. Newt also posited tourists honeymooning in low-Earth orbit, space factories making products, a rocket with enough power to advance our national manifest destiny to the planet Mars.

“I was attacked the other night for being grandiose,” Gingrich said. “I just want you to know: Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose. The Wright brothers going down to Kitty Hawk was grandiose. John F. Kennedy saying we'll get to the moon in eight years was grandiose. I accept the charge that I am an American, and Americans are instinctively grandiose because we believe in a bigger future.”

“Does that mean I'm a visionary? You betcha.”

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Gingrich watchers of long standing know this is nothing new. The former House Speaker, who admits to having embraced the science fiction of Isaac Asimov as a much younger man, is an old hand at new dreams.

In July 1981 Mr. Gingrich sponsored H.R. 4286, an ultimately unsuccessful bill loftily titled the National Space and Aeronautics Policy Act. The bill’s Title 4, covering "Government of Space Territories," “sets forth provisions for the government of space territories, including constitutional protections, the right to self-government and admission to statehood."

In his 1984 book, “Window of Opportunity,” a survey of Big Ideas, Gingrich ventures that "[a]mbient light covering entire areas could reduce the current danger of criminals lurking in darkness. Mirrors could be arranged to light given metropolitan areas only during particular periods, so there could be darkness late at night for sleeping."

And he told the World Science Fiction Convention in August 1986, that “If we’d spent as much on space as we’ve spent on farm programs, we could have taken all the extra farmers and put them on space stations working for a living in orbiting factories.”

There’s nothing wrong with having vision — as opposed to seeing visions. God knows we need more leaders with a sense of the future and how to get there. But Newt’s fanciful ideas have long had people pulling their chins — about the ideas and their source.

The author Christopher Buckley, reviewing various books of Newtonian cerebral motion for The New York Times in 1995, got it about right: “[I]t can be a little . . . weird when elected officials start talking like Jules Verne.”

So did former Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican party's 1996 presidential nominee, who wrote recently in National Review that back in the day, Newt “had a new idea every minute and most of them were off the wall.”

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s a curious disconnect about this thinker of vast, great thoughts, something that indicates in pretty clear terms just how a man so focused on what’s next can completely lose track of what’s already happened. And what’s right in front of him.

Besides the challenges that await him between now and the distant future of next Tuesday, in Florida, Newt has other down-to-earth problems. His vision of American empire in the cosmos, for example, have to confront the thorny problem of a price tag of hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of earthbound dollars in cost.

And more immediately, his campaign faces the issue of his relentless associations with President Ronald Reagan and Newt’s tireless self-promotion of his connections to the Reagan legacy. Those glowing Reagan tie-ins reflect just how ... off-world Gingrich is as a candidate, and how much of a tireless gaze into the rear-view mirror the Gingrich campaign is right now.

Gingrich faces a problem with the electorate he ultimately hopes to sway. Simply put, it’s a problem of recognition. You see, President Reagan ended his presidency in January 1989 — 22 whole years ago.

In the 22 years between the end of his presidency and now, about 20.4 million people were born in the United States, according to statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services. Every one of them is old enough to vote in the election next November. Every one of them is also too young to remember Ronald Reagan firsthand, too young to know anything about “morning in America” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” — unless, of course, they read it in the history books.

Irony of ironies: Newt Gingrich, man of the future, is waging a presidential campaign enamored of the past.

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And Newt is seeking to be the standard-bearer of a party that’s, charitably, quite long in the tooth. A series of nationwide polls of 8,000 participants, conducted by Azimuth Research Group over the last nine months bears this out: “To start, the obvious conclusion from the breakdown of ages is that most Republican voters are quite old. The party will probably lose over a third of its members to old age in the next 20 years and has only tiny base of younger voters to replace them.

“The Republican Party is not a party of the young. More than two thirds of those polled were over 48 years old and only 20% were in the bottom two age brackets. This raises the question of what kind of a future a party has whose membership averages close to retirement age with very few new members becoming involved at or near college age. ...

“Membership is already shrinking and the trend suggested in these polls is one which would leave the Republican party as a much smaller minority party in less than a generation.”

Irony of ironies #2: Newt Gingrich, man of the future, seeks to lead a party with a commanding grip on the past, and not much else.

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No question, Newt Gingrich is a man of grand, bold, heroic ideas. But the challenges facing this country, and his own party, call for moonshot-style energies a little more terrestrially-based. Even his challenger for the nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (a man with his own problems getting a grip on what’s right in front of him) understood that.

In Thursday’s Florida debate, after Newt thundered about the need for Americans in space, Romney succinctly, refreshingly, brought the concept back to earth. Where most of us happen to live.

“It may be a big idea, but it’s not a good idea.”

Image credits: Gingrich: Reuters/Daron Dean. Window of Opportunity book cover: © 1984 Tor Books. Aging GOP symbol: Dan Page for TIME, © 2009 TIME. Republican voters by age graph: Azimuth Research Group via Blogcritics.

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