Spaced Out!

Newt Gingrich’s Wacky Moon-Colony Proposal at CNN GOP Debate

Gingrich’s proposal that the U.S. establish a colony on the moon is not the first offbeat idea from a presidential contender. By Ben Jacobs.

Newt Gingrich’s proposal for a colony on the moon received a lot of attention in the CNN Republican debate last night because it is, for lack of a better term, weird.

After all, while plenty of candidates have campaigned on Florida’s Space Coast, few have been so bold or outlandish as to talk about creating space colonies and pledging a mission to Mars. Gingrich certainly comes by this belief honestly, having introduced a bill in Congress to establish the parameters for space-based statehood in 1981. But it’s still an issue that is unusually quirky for a presidential candidate. However, it’s not the first, nor will it be the last time a candidate has proposed an offbeat policy that may not appeal to voters, let alone to common sense generally.

Gingrich is not the first prominent Republican to talk about going to the moon. In fact, George W. Bush made a little-known promise in 2004 to try to send a manned expedition back to the moon. According to Bush, part of the appeal of going there was that lunar “soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air.” Needless to say, not much progress has since been made on humans being able to breathe moon dirt, and it did not come up as a significant issue afterward in Bush’s reelection campaign.

A weird campaign proposal that did become a major issue in a presidential campaign was Barry Goldwater’s suggestion that U.S. forces in Vietnam should have the latitude to use tactical nuclear weapons. In specific, he suggested that the “defoliation of the forests by low-yield atomic weapons could be done. When you remove the foliage, you remove the cover.” This was seen not just as strange, but dangerous, particularly coming from a man who had made an offhand remark suggesting the United States “lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin.” The result was perhaps the most infamous television advertisement in history, the Daisy ad that warned of the possibility of a nuclear holocaust if Goldwater were elected.

But candidates also can make strange and damaging political promises not to use nuclear weapons. In the 1987 British general election, Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party, justified his party’s position on unilateral nuclear disarmament by stating that, if the Russians invaded, Labur’s plan was to make such an occupation “totally untenable.” While a Soviet invasion of Western Europe was quite unlikely in 1987, the idea of resisting such an attack through guerrilla fighting and resistance, as opposed to maintaining a nuclear deterrent, struck many voters as laughable. This contributed to Labour’s eventual defeat that year, and generally came across as a peculiar and backward concept for a defense policy.

This weirdness isn’t limited to life-and-death issues such as nuclear weapons and space exploration. One of Bill Clinton’s crowning achievements in the run=up to his 1996 reelection campaign was the V-Chip. This once-controversial measure required all television sets to come equipped with a device that would enable parents to block objectionable, particularly violent television shows. This was heralded as a way to stop children from being exposed to lewd and inappropriate content. However, as Slate concluded eight years later, “For the most part, it seems that parents simply don’t use V-chips.” But, merely a decade and half later, the idea not only seems outlandish as an issue for a major national debate, but archaic in the age of wireless Internet and iPads.

There is something, however, to be said for strange campaign promises. Talking about statehood for a U.S. space colony on the moon is somewhat bizarre, but at least it’s a sign of original thinking. In an age of pre-programmed politicians who stick to tightly honed talking points, it’s a welcome change of pace to have a politician who thinks outside the box—just as long as not all his ideas come from outer space.