In the 1970s, Republicans had a name for people they imagined were indolent and undeserving, yet still on the dole: welfare queens. Ronald Reagan himself popularized the term at the 1976 Republican convention, and conservatives since then have periodically whipped up a frenzy over some similar imagined crisis of dependency, usually involving ethnic minorities and almost always in the service of winning political office. The latest was Newt Gingrich, whose blustery denunciations of Barack Obama as the “food stamp president” briefly helped raise him to frontrunner status in the Republican primary.
But Newt has had a rough go of it since then. He’s fallen back — way, way back. His main source of funding (billionaire Sheldon Adelson) has dried up. His think tank went bankrupt. His campaign is $4.3 million in debt. He doesn’t hold a prayer of beating Mitt Romney, something he has all but conceded. And yet since March 6th, the Secret Service has honored his request for protection at a cost to taxpayers of roughly $40,000 a day (or, to translate that into a metric Newt might favor, enough to supply 13,333 people a day with food stamps). That would yield a tab of more than $5 million were Gingrich to carry out his vow to stay in the race until the Republican convention at the end of August.
But, wait — isn’t Gingrich the same candidate who declared the deficit a profound national crisis and vowed to eliminate it by 2017 using that gimmicky Lean Six Sigma corporate streamlining system created by one of his campaign donors? (Why, yes, he is.) So how can he justify his current status: jobless, deep in debt, no prospects, a drain on public coffers?
Gingrich, a man of no small ego, can’t enjoy being peppered with questions about his Secret Service detail, as he has been for the last week or so. But neither can he make the problem go away, at least not without exposing the ruse of his continuing campaign.
Candidates must meet certain benchmarks earn Secret Service protection. Oddly, though, once protection has been awarded, there is no level of support beneath which it gets revoked. Newt will only stop leeching off taxpayers when Romney becomes the nominee or when he voluntarily gives up his security detail. But the latter option would be an admission that his campaign is hopeless.
So far, Gingrich has ignored the cost he is imposing on taxpayers, even though any halfway objective Lean Sixer would identify the expenditure as an egregious instance of waste. But that may finally change. Yesterday, he told NBC News he will conduct a “reassessment” of his campaign if he doesn’t perform well in Delaware’s primary tonight. So while the matter of Secret Service protection ultimately falls to Newt, and while Romney will surely become the nominee, today’s primaries appear to have some importance after all: A vote against Newt will send the message that it’s time to stop vacuuming up tax dollars and go get a job.