Ralph Kramden (aka Jackie Gleason) used to get a lot of laughs when he would threaten his wife with domestic violence. Times have changed, thankfully, but that didn't stop Mitt Romney recently from telling Florida voters they should send Newt Gingrich “to the moon.”
Gingrich's much-quoted bit of pandering to Florida voters his promise to set up a permanent moon base by the end of his "second term" and his wistful imagining that the moon could become the 51st state once it had enough people probably has hurt him, although I haven't yet seen any firm evidence to support that.
Far from backing away, however, Gingrich is stepping on the rocket-thrust accelerator. His tactic is to make us all wonder whether we lack the imagination to see the big picture.
He's trying to tap into a recurring theme in American history. Someone comes along with an idea that immediately is branded as crazy because, to people bound by the narrow focus of conventional wisdom, it's too weird or different. But then that person eventually invents or innovates something that turns "crazy" into commonplace.
In the 1800s, people first laughed at the idea that trains could use air pressure to stop more effectively. It sounded preposterous. But George Westinghouse Jr. made it work and saved a lot of lives. And who hasn't read the comments by great and intelligent people in the 19th century that man would never fly? (Just one example is Lord Kelvin, the British mathematician and physicist, who said around 1895, "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." Ha! The laugh's on you, Kelvin!)
No one wants to be that guy in the history books.
And so Gingrich has tried to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln, who as a candidate proposed building a transcontinental railroad, or John F. Kennedy, who called for sending a man to the moon within a decade.
I don't know whether the moon colony idea is something that 100 years from now will cause people to idolize the failed candidate Gingrich for being so far ahead of the crowd. I do know that, in the midst of an economic quagmire, it's not the sort of thing for which a debt-choked nation wants to spit up the money.
Here’s a blog that talks about how much such a venture might cost. We're not talking about building a base in a hostile environment such as the North Pole. At least there you can still breathe if you step outside.
And Gingrich's historical analogies are a bit unconvincing. The nation may have lacked resources in Lincoln's day, but there already were people living in California who needed to connect with the East coast. The transcontinental railroad was an important part of the manifest destiny to unite the continent under the American flag.
The moon shot also was heavily cloaked in national security. The Russians already were destined to go to the moon, and their space program was beating ours. Kennedy's call touched the chords of liberty's patriotic struggle against Communism.
But today? Where is the urgency? No other nation is even close to landing people on the moon right now. While Gingrich may be right that the United States should not abandon its post atop international space exploration, he hasn't made a concrete argument to support the urgency. We're sharing a space station with the Russians these days, for heaven's sake.
Gingrich may want you to believe his plan is not pie-in-the-sky, but in a true American comedic tradition that the cast of the Honeymooners would have appreciated, it's probably going to smack him in the face.