New York Times campaign reporter Jim Rutenberg filed from Charleston on Wednesday, amplifying racial accusations against the Republican presidential field, especially Newt Gingrich’s recent comments on Obama as a “food stamp” president, in “Risks for G.O.P. in Attacks With Racial Themes.”
South Carolina has the nation’s first female Indian-American governor (a Republican), the highest-ranking African-American in Congress (on the Democratic side) and a rapidly growing population of Latinos, all evidence, longtime political players here say, that the state is shedding its racially charged past.
But like the historic slave plantations that draw tourists on the outskirts of town, the legacy of that past has not been totally wiped from the politics of today. And if the general election campaign by Republicans against President Obama, the nation’s first black president, goes on to include a fraught, multilayered discussion about minorities and entitlements, work ethics and what it means to be American, then it will have gotten under way in earnest here this week.
So it was that on Tuesday Newt Gingrich gleefully said his description of Mr. Obama as a “food stamp president” at Monday’s Fox News debate had “struck a chord with the American people”; the White House press secretary asserted that it was “crazy” to say so, and then Mr. Gingrich doubled down -- releasing an ad with his debate-night assertion that “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.”
Mr. Gingrich was clearly making the case that he is the candidate most able to take the fight to Mr. Obama in the fall, but he was also laying bare risks for his party when it comes to invoking arguments perceived to carry racial themes or other value-laden attack lines.
But it took a Republican debate in South Carolina on Martin Luther King’s Birthday and an African-American debate moderator for the Fox News Channel, Juan Williams, to bring it all together for a national audience in a state that has tended to make issues of race, religion and class central for both parties. Pressing Mr. Gingrich specifically at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center on Monday night, Mr. Williams asked Mr. Gingrich if his comments calling Mr. Obama a food stamp president were not potentially belittling to black people.
Mr. Williams was channeling the view of Democratic African-American stalwarts like Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, who likened the approach on Tuesday to a modern version of the Republican “Southern strategy” to win over disaffected white voters in the South when the Democrats embraced the civil rights movement.
“It tends to equate the president of the United States with dependency, with a lack of status, or tends to try to lower the president,” Mr. Clyburn said in an interview. “And I believe it’s another way to separate his presidency from the presidencies of all the others before him.”
Yet Mr. Gingrich spoke for many Republicans who have publicly worried that Mr. Obama’s supporters will unfairly cast necessary policy arguments in terms of race. As Mr. Gingrich said in the debate, “I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”
The Times took a harsher line in Wednesday’s lead editorial while smearing South Carolina in the bargain: “Preaching Division in South Carolina.”
By mixing falsehoods with racial condescension, Newt Gingrich brought a raucous presidential debate crowd to its feet on Monday night in South Carolina, further cheapening his reputation and that of the state Republican Party.
For months, Mr. Gingrich has made racial resentment an integral part of his platform as a conservative challenger to Mitt Romney. He has traversed the country calling President Obama “the greatest food-stamp president in American history” and presenting African-Americans with the great revelation that they should prefer paychecks to federal handouts. When he was called on it at the debate by Juan Williams of Fox News, he took the measure of the crowd and doubled down.
In South Carolina, where a Confederate flag still waves on the front lawn of the State Capitol largely because of the efforts of the state Republican Party, it remains good primary politics to stir up racial animosity and then link it to President Obama. Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum and the crowd that cheered them are following in a long and tawdry tradition, singling out a minority group for lectures while refusing to support policies that help all Americans.