Gingrich Plays the Race Card, as Press Cheers “Debating Skills”


South Carolina. It’s going to be the state that keeps on giving to President Barack Obama. I’m not talking votes; I’m talking hate. Newt Gingrich’s primary win has the pundits praising his “debating skills,” but the less prudish among us can be clear: Gingrich’s skills aren’t rhetorical; they’re racial. He’s feeble at striking down his opponents’ arguments; what he’s great at is digging up his audience’s racial rage. It worked for the former Speaker in South Carolina; it’ll work for the Democrats all year.

War with Washington, the “best food stamp president,” a slap down of the one African American moderator (“First, Juan…) Newt Gingrich had the GOP crowd on its feet in Myrtle Beach last Monday with exactly the same linguistic bombast that worked so well to end federal income support for poor people when he was speaker of the House. For the Republican candidates it’s all about looking presidential and Newt Gingrich was so confident about what activists of the South Carolina GOP want in the White House that he re-cut his joust with Juan Williams for a campaign ad as if to say “Vote Newt! He Can Beat Up A Black Man!” Cap that with his attack on CNN’s John King and you have vintage Gingrich: beating up the straw black man – and the straw liberal broadcaster who coddles him too.

As I wrote in At The Tea Party… it’s sick but satisfying for Democrats to be reminded just how much racial resentment and flat-out racism remains, especially if it remains someplace else – far from where they are. Tea Party hate was never anything super special; its roots lay in the same old dirt that the GOP’s drawn on for decades, and not just the GOP, either.

The GOP’s racism is inexcusable, and let’s face it, no one on the stage with Newt muttered a peep to hush him. But it’s not only the Right that keeps alive the good ol’ boy idea that America is special, stand-alone, white and Christian. As a nation we keep our racist bombast warm because it’s just so convenient when it comes to cutting help for the poor, ending affirmative action, even waging war. (“Fight them over there, so they don’t fight us over here” and so on.)

Newt Gingrich is hardly the first to notice that there’s an audience for this muck. That audience doesn’t exist because people are dimwits or deaf. It exists because we haven’t put bias to bed yet.  In the last presidential campaign, for example, it was Mark Penn who suggested in a memo that he could not “imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.” Penn’s boss, Hillary Clinton, commented to USA Today soon after that her opponent’s support was flagging among “hard-working Americans, white Americans.” (Rebecca Traister reminds us of all this in her good book Big Girls Don’t Cry.)

The facts have always been there for the reporting. Contrary to what Gingrich implies, Food Stamps and other programs for those in need aren’t for African Americans. Less than one quarter of food stamp recipients are African-American. More welfare dollars went to white women than black women, too.

According to Timothy Casey, a senior staff attorney with Legal Momentum, a women’s rights law group, the 1996 “Personal Responsibility Act” which Gingrich championed reduced benefit receipts from 60 per cent of poor families pre-reform to only about 20 per cent of poor families today, and from over 80 percent of eligible families pre-reform to less than 40 percent today. “Block granting cash aid also led to sharply reduced benefits that in every state are now less than half the poverty standard,” Casey told the Institute for Public Accuracy last week.

The Republican plan for food stamp reform looks a whole lot like welfare reform — end uniform eligibility standards, end automatic raises during economic down times; give states block grants – and so mask a big cut to the program.

Unless Democrats grow some sudden spine, there’s no reason to believe Newt’s “best food-stamp president” will work any less well than his “welfare queen.” Poor people everywhere are in – more – trouble. Instead of holding firm against the Right’s assault on government programs, or talking up the facts of who suffers what when the nation’s stirred up by bigots — a President reluctant to call out white racist innuendo, has already agreed to multiple budget compromises that have cut social spending by billions of dollars.

President Barack Obama has defended food stamps generally but a battle is shaping up during the farm-bill debate, and that’s guaranteed to bore to death most urban voters — and all the media. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., a signer of Paul Ryan’s budget slashing plan, and House Agriculture Nutrition and Horticulture Subcommittee Chairman Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, have indicated they’re looking at tightening up eligibility for food stamps. Already Pennsylvania, facing a spike in use, plans to impose new “asset” tests on recipients, one that advocates say will hurt the poor already reeling from recession.

How hard will Democrats fight for food stamps and the poor? Only as hard as they have to. When Bill Clinton shows up to bracing applause on the campaign trail, we’ll remember just how hard that isn’t. The Democratic president who ended “welfare as we know it” never paid a political price. Only the poor paid. There are more of the poor now, and they’re more racially divided than ever.  The GOP knows how to harness resentment for their purposes. So far the Obama team have shown no inclination to do anything to stop it. Marginalizing the marginalized works. Will there be a line drawn in 2012? There’s not a chance of it. Thanks to the ghastly GOP display in the primary race in South Carolina the lines are already cold and clear. Will voters be with good guy Obama or with the racist GOP? Food stamps? Welfare? Who cares about the details when the other team is racist?

LAURA FLANDERS is the host of The Laura Flanders Show coming to public television stations later this year. She was the host and founder of GRITtv.org. Follow her on Twitter: @GRITlaura. 

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