E.J. Dionne explains how Newt Gingrich’s use of class and racial politics comes straight out of the Richard Nixon playbook in his column, “What Newt Learned From Nixon:”
The conventional view is that Gingrich’s critique of Bain Capital, Romney’s old company, didn’t work because Republicans dislike assaults on “free enterprise,” a phrase Romney still hopes to use as a self-protective mantra. But while Gingrich softened his attacks on Bain, he did so only after creating the context in which Romney was forced to answer query after query about his financial status, and he repeatedly fumbled questions about releasing his tax returns. Romney finally announced Sunday he’d make public his 2010 return and a 2011 estimate this week.
All this allowed Gingrich to draw a class line across South Carolina. Exit polls showed Romney carrying only one income group, voters earning more than $200,000 a year. Voters earning less than $100,000 a year went strongly for Gingrich.
Yet conservative class politics is always inflected by culture and ideology, the potent mix that Pat Buchanan brought to Richard Nixon’s attention four decades ago. South Carolina’s two debates offered Gingrich a showcase for his war on those elites whom the conservative rank-and-file despise.
There was also the matter of race. Gingrich is no racist, but neither is he naive about the meaning of words. When Fox News’ Juan Williams, an African-American journalist, directly challenged Gingrich about the racial overtones of Gingrich’s staple reference to Obama as “the food-stamp president,” the former House speaker verbally pummeled him, to raucous cheers. As if to remind everyone of the power of coded language, a supporter later praised Gingrich for putting Williams “in his place.”