The Common Good

Newt Gingrich Is Right

Newt Gingrich is right. Not about most things, but he is, at least, about the superficial state of our political discourse.

During the debate the other night he again proposed holding “Lincoln-Douglas” style debates during the general election. I’m not sure about the exact format, but the inclination that we need to move away from sound-bites and into deeper discussion is the right one.

It doesn’t matter so much that Texas Gov. Rick Perry blanked on which federal departments he wants to cut. It’s what he was trying to say that is the problem.

Perry's now historic mental lapse on what he forgot to say is actually less problematic for me than what he meant to say and couldn’t. More than what he's forgotten during the debate was what he said after, when he declared that most Americans would love to forget many government programs (as he does), but at that at least he is on the right side by wanting to just keep cutting as many as possible — even if he couldn't recall the name of one the ones he would axe.

The debate our country should be having is not between small government and big government, or almost no government at all as some seem to be suggesting. It’s about what we think government can and should accomplish; what smart and effective government is. 

Instead of putting forward a positive vision of what we are able to accomplish collectively through the means of government, there is a fight about who will cut the most departments or public sector jobs. Some have even gone so far, in the heated state debates, to suggest or even say that public sector jobs are not real jobs at all; and only private sector jobs are.

Does that imply that making Hostess Twinkies is a real job, but being a teacher, fire fighter, or police officer is not?

If there are ineffective or inefficient activities of government, or of certain governmental departments, let’s reform them. But, we need to be thoughtful and focused about the things government can do well, and that we would suffer without.

And it can be difficult to take seriously the anti-government attitude of a group that has dedicated themselves to seeking power in that same government.

Gov. Perry shouldn’t have to keep defending himself about his lapse.

I will give a quick shout-out to Mitt Romney who was the only other presidential candidates on the stage nice enough to try to help Perry out in his excruciatingly embarrassing moment, by suggesting “EPA?” as the department Perry might be thinking about cutting.

Perry should have to stand up and have the three hour Lincoln-Douglas style debates about why he wants to cut the Departments of Education, Commerce, Energy, and perhaps even the Environmental Protection Agency, and all the other government work that he would like to forget.

Substance is a better political discussion than sound bites, and also should be easier for candidates and voters to remember.

portrait-jim-wallis11Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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