WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich has always had a way with words — provocative words, harsh words, incendiary words. He and GOP consultant Frank Luntz pioneered Republicans’ use of catchy phrases and misleading language not only to demean their rivals but also to redefine their rivals’ policies.
As speaker of the House, Gingrich famously fined his caucus members any time they failed to call the estate tax a “death tax.” He was so successful that he apparently persuaded many Americans that the estate tax, levied only on the richest Americans, was routinely assessed on the corpses of common folk.
It’s no accident, then, that Gingrich recently spoke of poor children with mean-spirited condescension, suggesting that many of them are criminals. He told a Des Moines audience, “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.”
After he was roundly and deservedly criticized, Gingrich claimed that he only meant to point out the need for a strong work ethic, a fundamental all-American virtue. But if he had meant that, he would have said that. Many public figures, including President Obama and comedian Bill Cosby, would surely agree.
Gingrich was up to something else: updating the Southern strategy of appealing to conservative white voters who cling to hoary stereotypes and unfortunate misperceptions about the black poor. Gingrich’s audience likely associated the phrase “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods” with black urban ghettos portrayed as havens of dysfunction, not with rural enclaves where white children struggle with a similar poverty.
And that’s what he wanted them to think. By way of clarifying his remarks, he told reporters that he was specifically thinking of “people who are in areas where there is public housing” — which is synonymous with the black poor.
Gingrich is no old-timey mossback, no Strom Thurmond or Jesse Helms. From time to time, he has enunciated racially enlightened policies that challenged Republican orthodoxy. But Gingrich is now waging a campaign to win the crown jewel of political offices, the presidency of the United States, and he is willing to say whatever he believes will win votes. He knows that the Republican base enjoys strident rhetoric and bombastic hyperbole, and nobody serves that up that better than he.
Gingrich also knows precisely where his support is coming from: older Republican voters. As Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones put it, “Gingrich’s support is heavily concentrated among Republicans who are at least 50.”
Those are also the voters who are most uncomfortable with the rapid demographic change symbolized by the election of a black president, according to The Pew Research Center. In a study released in November, Pew noted that older white Americans are more likely to be racially intolerant than younger whites.
Denunciations of poor black children as lazy and inclined toward crime don’t run a high risk of offending that group.
Neither do Gingrich’s attacks on child labor laws, which he contends have prevented poor children from taking jobs that would teach them the value of work, such as cleaning toilets and mopping floors at their schools.
If Gingrich were genuinely interested in offering poor children a road map to the American middle class, he might have started by acknowledging that globalization, among other forces, has exacerbated income inequality and made it more difficult for the poor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, even if they work 12 to 14 hours a day.
He might also have acknowledged that the dysfunction that too often attends impoverished households is not limited to those who live in public housing; it also strikes those who live in ramshackle trailer parks and shoddy little shacks in rural environments. Has Gingrich ever seen the movie “Winter’s Bone,” a tale of white rural poverty worsened by the curse of methamphetamine addiction?
Furthermore, anybody who wants to see poor children succeed would encourage them to spend every spare hour reading, writing and learning arithmetic. In order to lift themselves up the ladder, they need the advantage of stellar academic skills.
Gingrich knows that as well as anyone, but he also knows what sells on the campaign trail. And the slander of poor black children is a hot commodity.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at email@example.com.)