I'll give Newt Gingrich this much: He knows how to play the race card for everything it's worth, and does it without even batting an eyelash. I think the apex of Monday's debate was this moment when Juan Williams asked Gingrich a direct question about how his thinly-veiled racist attitudes play with African American voters, and whether he regretted his positions. Here's the question and answer:
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.
The audience roared. Absolutely roared. Salon writer Steve Kornacki's analysis was right on the money:
In a general election debate, this might have been a challenging question for Gingrich to field. But this was a GOP primary debate in a state where the modern Republican Party was essentially created out of a white backlash against the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights. Some in the live audience in Myrtle Beach hissed at Williams, one of the few Democratic-friendly voices on Fox, and Gingrich milked their outrage for all it was worth.
Yes, yes he did. Not content to re-emphasize his barely-concealed disdain for those sponging poor folk who obviously have no decent role models so they can learn how to work, he went on to declare this:
You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.
Ooh. A two-fer. He gets to nail those piggy union janitors in New York and play right into the heart of the crowd with the "elites" comment. Except it's not accurate. The union employees Gingrich is referring to here are known as "custodial engineers." And as FactCheck.org notes, the starting pay for one of those employees is about $56,000 in New York. However, a custodial engineer isn't really a janitor in the sense that Gingrich describes. A custodial engineer is a management position. A "cleaner" makes about $32,000 per year.
In Newt's scenario, that $30,000 per year position would be split among "30-some" kids, who would do "light janitorial duty", presumably. How many hours would students work to earn that $1,000 per year? And what happens to the adult who no longer has a job because the students are now "learning to work"? These are unanswered questions.
But never fear, Newtie didn't stop there. He knew he had the audience with him and the momentum on his side, particularly after the audience booed loudly and tried to shout Juan Williams' next question down.
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.
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.
Well, thank God Mr. Gingrich didn't say what he implied, because that would be an outright lie. His suggestion, of course, was that it was black people who have been put on food stamps during Mr. Obama's presidency, which is simply not true. By far, the largest majority of Americans on food stamps are white.
At this point, it is probably also worth noting that President Obama did not "put Americans on food stamps." Bankers and the previous President are responsible for that. This economy didn't magically change overnight. It took years and years of mortgage fraud and abuse to get to that point, and the community most deeply affected by the financial meltdown is the African American community, who has seen their wealth erode more deeply than any other group.
If people actually looked past their fears and biases, they'd realize calling Mr. Obama the "food stamp President" isn't really a terrible thing. After all, food stamps have done more to erase starvation in this country than any other program. It's strange to hear candidates demonize a program that's actually served to help people so effectively, but we live in odd times.
This debate, more than the others, really exposed the Republican party for the cynical, selfish, arrogant group that they are. Between the audience reactions to Ron Paul's invocation of the Golden Rule, the absolute adoration for Newt Gingrich's public declaration of disdain for the poor, and Mitt Romney's elite arrogance, they've sewn up the selfish white voter contingent quite well.
Here's the picture Newt Gingrich paints. He sees an America where working people lose their jobs to students age 12-13 or so. Those students might make about $3 to replace the janitors they displace. The janitors, who also have families to feed, will have no recourse but to apply for aid, which they might receive provided they agree to drug tests and job retraining programs. Except they will not be hired even after the retraining programs because there will be kids who can be hired for less than minimum wage after they repeal the child labor laws.
They will have no explanation for the poverty they cause other than to blame those they victimize. And South Carolina Republicans will applaud without realizing they, too, will be the victims of these cynical, selfish policies.