By Luke Brinker
As the New York Times noted in its review of Monday’s Fox News-Wall Street Journal presidential primary debate in South Carolina, a racially charged exchange between Newt Gingrich and co-moderator Juan Williams was one of the night’s highlights:
In fact, Mr. Gingrich won some of his loudest and most sustained applause when the liberal Fox News analyst Juan Williams pressed him on his call for schoolchildren to work as janitors, for his description of Mr. Obama as a “food stamp president” and remarks that Mr. Williams said, to loud boos, seemed “intended to belittle the poor.”
At one point rolling his eyes, cocking his head to the side and saying with mock impatience, “Well, first of all, Juan,” Mr. Gingrich seemed to revel in using Mr. Williams as a foil.
“The fact is more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history,” Mr. Gingrich said, a claim that is numerically true but ignored the depth of the recession that Mr. Obama inherited when he took office. “I know that among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”
The reason more people are on food stamps under the Obama presidency is because of the deep economic recession the president inherited. One of the most common conservative talking points is that the national debt has increased faster under President Obama than under any other president, but this falsely implies that President Obama has engaged in a splurge of spending on numerous new programs. The increase in the national debt under this administration occurred because of declining tax revenues amid a poor economic climate and the triggering of automatic stabilizers – programs like unemployment insurance, transfer programs, and, yes, food stamps. In a recession, more people are eligible for these programs, so that spending is automatically triggered.
So when Gingrich refers to President Obama as the “food stamp president,” he clearly isn’t interested in having a serious discussion of basic budgetary operations. Instead, as Williams insinuated, he’s making a racially charged appeal to bigoted elements of the GOP base. It’s what’s known as a dog whistle. The intended audience – those who associate welfare programs with those who are lazy and black – hears the cue, but it’s veiled enough to have an air of plausible deniability about it. (“Of course I don’t intend anything racial! I’m just pointing out that under Obama, more Americans are on food stamps.”) As I’ve written before, Tea Party supporters (who are synonymous with the GOP base and who are quite numerous in South Carolina) are substantially more likely than the public at large to harbor suspicious or outright derisive views toward minorities. Here’s part of a 2010 Newsweek story I’ve previously excerpted:
So a new poll by researchers at the University of Washington caught my eye. The findings are sure to fan the flames further. “People who approve of the Tea Party, more than those who don’t approve, have more racist attitudes,” says Christopher Parker, a University of Washington professor who directed the survey. “And not only that, but more homophobic and xenophobic attitudes.” For instance, respondents were asked whether they agreed with various characterizations of different racial groups. Only 35 percent of those who strongly approve of the tea party agreed that blacks are hardworking, compared with 55 percent of those who strongly disapprove of the tea party. On whether blacks were intelligent, 45 percent of the tea-party supporters agreed, compared with 59 percent of the tea-party opponents. And on the issue of whether blacks were trustworthy, 41 percent of the tea-party supporters agreed, compared with 57 percent of the tea-party opponents.
Winning a Republican primary in South Carolina without the votes of people who hold these views simply isn’t possible. Whether or not Gingrich has personal antipathy toward blacks isn’t the point here. What’s undeniable is that he’s pandering to those who do.