Q: What has been the Republicans’ biggest mistake?
A: They were mistaken about what people were willing to trade off. Ask people, “Would you like to reduce the size of government?” and they’ll all say, “Yeah!” But give them a checklist — “Do you want to reduce this? Do you want your mother to pay more for Medicare?” — and they’ll check off three or four things, but they won’t be the same things. There’s no consensus. The Republicans so overplayed their hand, between Gingrich and orphanages and cutting the safety net, that people said, “Uh-oh, I don’t think this is what we voted for.”
Q: What role has Gingrich played in the decline of this Congress and of the GOP?
A: He came in sticking his foot in his mouth at every opportunity. And he seems like such a smug little boy. That whole thing about shutting the government down because the president was pissy to him on the plane — it really didn’t sit well with people.
And, ideologically, people just didn’t trust him. Would you buy your mother’s health care proposal from Newt Gingrich? I’ll pass on that. He just didn’t look like a trustworthy guy, somebody to entrust with your Social Security, your health care, the fate of your children.
Q: How have liberals responded to the Gingrich revolution?
A: This Congress scared liberals into talking about values. They had virtually given the whole conversation about families and values to the right wing. In some way, liberals got the message and got it together, and they’re talking about values and families in ways that they should have been.
Q: How did that happen?
A: Liberals could no longer talk like policy wonks, because they weren’t in charge of policy. They couldn’t put in welfare reform or childcare policy, because they didn’t have the votes. What they could talk about was, “How should we behave toward our children? Are we working too much and neglecting each other? What has happened to the sense of community?” Some of this is V-chips and curfews, which is not public policy, but still resonates and makes people feel that liberals at least know what they’re worrying about.
Q: What do you think of the GOP’s government-vs.-family concept?
A: That’s their whole shtick: Get the government out of the family, and you will be able to control everything that affects your children.
First of all, people want the government to do certain things. The Clinton administration says the government can be on your side; it can be a force to help you, in terms of watching out for your kids. The Democrats still say there are things the government can do for your family, whereas the Republicans have said the only thing government can do for your family is get out and leave you in charge.
When the Republicans suggest it should all be your responsibility, women react very strongly, because personal responsibility for the family means, “It’s back on you, Mom.” When they talk about doing away with the regulations about nursing home care, or say that families should take care of their own elderly, they’re talking about a middle-aged woman taking care of her parents while she’s taking care of her children and holding down a full-time job so her family can survive. And women know that. That’s part of the gender gap.