It if seemed as though Newt Gingrich — veteran of pitched partisan battles, and no-holds-barred ideological cage matches — had been off his game of late, he came roaring back during the GOP debate in South Carolina. After flip-flopping on his attacks on Mitt Romney's record as a vulture capitalist, Newt went a long way towards making both Republicans elites and the conservative base forget that he made them spend a week struggling with a problem for which they not only have no solutions, but they haven't even decided is a problem. He may even have convinced some that he's got what it takes to face off against President Obama in November. He confirmed, yet again, the worst of many Americans' suspicions about conservatives and about the GOP.
And all he had to do was play the proverbial race card. With that, Newt knew he just might have a winning hand.
It was one of those moments when everything aligns. Newt, who is alternately at his best or worse when backed into a corner, had painted himself into a pretty tight one. He said as much when he admitted that it's pretty much over for him if Romney wins the South Carolina primary. And it looks like evangelical voters — a big chunk of the GOP's southern base — are leaning towards Santorum, and away from Gingrich and wife. It added up to a make or break moment for Newt, but he was in the perfect place (practically his home turf), and he had the perfect audience. The timing was perfect. Not only was it Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the Justice Department had recently rejected South Carolina's voter suppression law — which effectively disenfranchised African Americans, Latinos, and poor people. Then, New got the prefect question.
WILLIAMS: Speaker Gingrich, you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?
GINGRICH: No. I don’t see that.
WILLIAMS: The suggestion that he made was about a lack of work ethic. And I’ve got to tell you, my e-mail account, my Twitter account has been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities. You saw some of this reaction during your visit…
… to a black church in South Carolina. You saw some of this during your visit to a black church in South Carolina, where a woman asked you why you refer to President Obama as “the food stamp president.” It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people.
GINGRICH: Well, first of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.
Now, I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable. (LAUGHTER)
Second, you’re the one who earlier raised a key point. There’s — the area that ought to be I-73 was called by Barack Obama a corridor of shame because of unemployment. Has it improved in three years? No. They haven’t built the road. They haven’t helped the people. They haven’t done anything.
BAIER: Finish your thought, Mr. Speaker.
GINGRICH: One last thing.
BAIER: Yes, sir.
GINGRICH: So here’s my point. I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job.
This Gingrich/Williams exchange has been endlessly analyzed and picked apart over the last couple of days, and how much it helped Newt's chances remains to be seen. But Newt's statements, and the standing ovation they earned him confirm what previous comments by Newt's fellow candidates have strongly suggested about GOP base: that playing the race card, ironically enough, can only help any GOP candidate's chances in the primaries.
Sure, Santorum took his chance to demagogue on race, telling Williams that it only took three things to stay out of poverty in America: “Work, graduate from high school, and get married before you have children.” He didn’t allow that any residue of racism or discrimination might make it harder for African Americans to work, graduate from high school or marry. Santorum also made unfounded allegations, again, about the Obama administration forbidding certain federal programs from talking about marriage. But at least he answered Williams with some personal respect.
Santorum sounded the call, but lacked the necessary ingredient to really get the South Carolina GOP debate audience fired up. Santorum stuck to the GOP's script on race, which showed he understood how to talk to conservatives about the issue in general.
But Newt knew his audience. He knew what they were hungry for, and gave it to them with a skill that served to remind everyone just why he rose to the speakership years before. (After showing reminding everyone for the past week just how he self-destructed as speaker, years ago.) As Paul Waldman noted last week, in light of the Pew Research Center report showing that Americans see economic inequality as a greater source of conflict than race or immigration, conservatives have always been class warriors. It's just that they've focused their anger on a perceived cultural elite, rather than the economic elite, "with a healthy dose of racial resentment thrown in" for good measure.
For all their talk of the horrors of "class warfare," conservatives are enormous class warriors, it's just that they want people to think differently about class. Their story goes like this: There is no such thing as an economic elite, but if you want to get mad about your situation, your anger should be directed at the cultural elite. Snooty Upper West Side liberals, sanctimonious hippies, stupid Hollywood actors, arrogant college professors, biased reporters—these are the people who are keeping you down. They hate your religion, they hate your taste in food and entertainment, they hate the country you love, and they're trying to subvert everything you believe in and hold dear. Don't get mad at the corporation that closed the plant in your town, get mad at some professor of cultural studies somewhere who said contemptuous things about America. Don't get mad at the politicians who want to eliminate capital gains taxes and regulations on Wall Street, get mad at the people who want to put up a mosque in lower Manhattan. Forget about economics, because there's a more important war going on, a war for the soul of our nation, between good, honest, hard-working folks like you and the Republicans who want to represent you on one side, and the godless fornicating arrogant liberals who are trying to destroy America.
This has been the formula for success (along with a healthy dose of racial resentment thrown in) for every Republican campaign since Richard Nixon discovered the "Silent Majority" in 1968. If you want to hear its current form, all you need to do is tune in to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly for a few minutes. No matter what the subject of the day is, the discussion will always circle back to the conservative class war. But as the Pew results show, you can only get people to ignore economic reality for so long.
That's what Newt measured out to his South Carolina audience, because he knew the way to their hearts.
But in the debate, Newt just may have attained the separation from Santorum that he so desperately needs. He did this not by attacking Romney’s Bain Capital record; loud condemnation from conservative opinion-shapers has caused him to ease up on the subject, and when debate panelists tried to engage him on it Monday night, he claimed only that he’d tried to raise reasonable questions about Romney’s business record and showed no interest in saying more. Instead, Newt struck gold by catering to racial and class resentments — with an assist (presumably unintended) from one of the panelists.
Newt knew the way to his South Carolina conservative audience's heart was not just to belittle someone, but to belittle the right someone. So, whether Juan Williams understood it or not, Newt transformed Williams into a stand-in for President Obama, and went to work with a gusto his audience more than matched with cheers of approval.
From the moment he began with, "First of all, Juan," Newt's response fairly dripped with venom. Newt might as well have called Williams "boy," for all the acid he poured into his emphasis on Williams first hame. The cheers of the audience made it clear he'd succeeded in doing what the basest of the base have wanted somebody to do to Barack Obama and every other black person "uppity" enough to suggest something might be wrong with the status quo.
Newt may be clueless about the reality of black life in America — that African-Americans have actually spent generations fighting for paychecks, not food stamps, and that conservatives politics haven't helped in that struggle. But Newt understood the near-apocalyptic paranoia Barack Obama's presidency inspired in his audience Monday night. He matched that paranoia with a response driven by his own desperation to beat Romney in South Carolina by showing he has what some conservatives still suspect Romney doesn't.
It wasn’t just that Gingrich was saying things conservatives believe. He was standing up for conservative principles under assault. He was showing conviction and fight, something that voters who worry about Romney have been looking for.
It hardly matters that the facts don't support what Newt, Santorum or any of the Republican candidates have said (and will surely say again) about African Americans and welfare. It hardly matters that no Americans have been "put on food stamps" by the Obama administration or anyone else, but have applied for food stamps out of necessity; while Newt's own party has spent more than a year obstructing every attempt to relieve the stresses of an economic crisis caused by conservative policies in the first place. Even David Frum, whose frustrations with the GOP are well known, recognizes the problem.
Food-stamp usage is an indicator of an economy in crisis. The non-incumbent party will of course want to use that crisis to arraign the incumbent party and to argue for a change in direction: that's normal politics.
But it's not normal to imply that the people cast into the position where they must use food stamps to feed themselves are somehow the villain of the piece—or to depict blacks as somehow uniquely undeserving of the aid they get.
It's worth remembering that at least one quarter of the South Carolina Republican primary electorate will likely exceed age 65. These voters also depend on government: for Social Security, for Medicare, and for other benefits. Newt Gingrich understands the merits of such protections for these voters. Shouldn't a man who wants to be president of the whole country show equal understanding of the troubles and dangers facing all those who depend on government assistance: the poor as well as the old, the black as well as the white?
The most important take-away from Monday night's debate isn't what Newt Gingrich said, anymore than what Rick Santorum said was the most important take-away from Iowa. The most important take-away is what it says about the Republican party and its conservative base that statements like Gingrich's and Santorum's — not to mention the ongoing saga of Ron Paul's old newsletters — won't hurt Republican candidates in the primaries, and may actually help them.
Newt understands that much. Thus, he played what may be the last card in his hand. Whether he wins or not, it's clear he hasn't folded. Yet. After his performance in South Carolina, he may not have to. Yet.
Update: It's looking like playing the race card in South Carolina may yet turn out to be a winning hand for Newt. Josh Marshall writes that Rasmussen's latest poll shows Gingrich gaining nationwide. Romney's camp has noticed, and has launched a new attack on Gingrich, using former members of Congress who served with Newt and have decidedly negative take on his tenure as Speaker.
Update: And if that doesn't work, there's always the robocalls.