FRUITLAND – Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, has called this era in American history a “trying time,” up there with the Revolutionary War, Civil War and Great Depression.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich echoed Sands during a fundraiser for the latter Saturday, by saying the country is at a crossroads and faces decisions the magnitude of which are comparable to only maybe the 1850s.
While Gingrich, a member of the party of Lincoln, hinted at a need for a transformational figure to lead the country down the right path, he never drew a comparison to the 16th president whose birthday also was on Saturday.
What Gingrich did do is set the agenda for what ideas need to be debated and decided as the country moves forward, not just during and after the 2012 presidential election but also years down the road.
“I think if we really think about it, we can turn this country around very, very fast,” Gingrich said to a crowd of about 100 at the Fruitland City Hall, “If we have two things: apply the values we believe in, and look at the world that works, and insist that government change to the world that works (and that) we don’t ruin the world that works by making it more like government.”
Gingrich made no hints as to whether he will be a 2012 presidential contender during his 20-minute speech. He has said that he will be making a decision this month and then an announcement toward the end of March.
Gingrich said he’d apply his worldview in two places, as he discussed earlier this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the nation’s energy policy and its Environmental Protection Agency. He said he would disband the current EPA and instead set up an environmental solutions agency.
He was cut off by applause in explaining all that was wrong with the EPA, but he also earned cheers in discussing an energy policy of both renewable fuels and offshore drilling.
“I’d much rather pay agriculture in Iowa, South Dakota and Illinois than ship the money to Saudi Arabia,” Gingrich said to applause.
Gingrich mostly earned whispers of agreement when he made subtle and not-so subtle criticisms of President Obama. He openly attacked the Obama’s comments about American exceptionalism, where the president agreed with the notion but said other countries feel the same way about their homeland.
“What’s really frustrating is when (polling firm) Gallup asked the question, ‘Do you believe that the American Constitution and American Declaration of Independence make us an exceptional country, or do you think that we’re just a normal country?’ It was 80 percent exceptional, 18 percent normal,” Gingrich said. “And yet, it’s the elites who believe we’re normal, who currently dominate the country.”
He more subtly mentioned the clause in the Declaration of Independence about men being endowed “by their creator,” something conservatives have criticized Obama for leaving out of speeches.
In discussing the inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, Gingrich argued that those rights come with responsibilities.
“I think this cannot be an election cycle in which you find some magician who you get to send on to Washington (D.C.) and then you relax and everything works,” Gingrich said. “We are in a period where the challenges we face require that we return power back home, require that local citizens take up local responsibility, require that part of the purpose of tax cuts is to give you more take-home money and to give you more free time, so you can be an active citizen.”
He said it’s not going to take a top-down approach but “tremendous grassroots” putting on “continuous pressure.”
Gingrich also stressed the importance of an American-style work ethic, something he feels has been slipping in the last couple of generations. It’s also a notion that grabbed hold of the audience in their line of questioning.
Though his speech was well-received, Gingrich came off as less conservative than some of the audience members who asked questions.
One man suggested rather than requiring worker training for those receiving unemployment benefits, as Gingrich suggested, that it’s a burden taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear at all.
He said while philosophically he may prefer taxpayers didn’t give up their dollars to help the unemployed, he pointed to the 1990s welfare reform that passed under his watch as a compromise that got more people off of welfare and into work.
“Liberals will tell you, you don’t want to go out and get a McDonald’s job – and McDonald’s can train people who aren’t very literate. I would argue just the opposite. If I could get some young person to go and get a job and learn how to show up on Monday,” Gingrich said, again drowned out in applause. “What I don’t want us to do anymore is give people money for doing nothing, it is fundamentally wrong.”
The former speaker’s speech drew praise from the audience, who also likened Gingrich to their local lawmaker.
“I think he’s bringing the message that Tom Sands also brings is that the communities and the people need to get themselves involved in what’s going on in their lives, because it’s kind of out of control and they’re the ones that have to bring it back,” said Mark Hagerla, a former state senator from West Burlington.
Sands said he agreed with Gingrich’s message of conservatism and an emphasis on personal responsibilities.
“There is no way that you can flip a switch and get everybody involved, and it isn’t the number of people that we need to get involved and get into the fold, it’s the quality,” Sands said. “In other words, we need people that are better informed, understand what is going on in their community and their state and their country and to become involved.”
He said there isn’t a better place to start than local government. Jason Hutcheson, of Morning Sun, however, said Iowa has a unique distinction of getting to be involved all the way at the top, as well, with its first-in-the-nation caucus status.
“I think as Iowans we have this unique responsibility of evaluating presidential candidates, and certainly I take that responsibility very seriously, and so I’m right now kind of sitting back and watching who emerges,” Hutcheson said, adding that Gingrich has one of the most brilliant political minds.
By CHRISTINIA CRIPPES, The Hawkey Eye