Newt Gingrich and "the food stamp president"

He didn't call Obama a "strapping young buck," but his slur is coded racism (and not very Catholic) just the same

Published May 15, 2011 4:16PM (EDT)

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich delivers an economic speech to the 51st Washington Conference with Laffer Associates, Friday, May 13, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (AP)
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich delivers an economic speech to the 51st Washington Conference with Laffer Associates, Friday, May 13, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (AP)

Newt Gingrich doubled down on his clever new slur against President Obama as "the food stamp president." He tried the line in a Friday speech to the Georgia Republican convention, and he used it again on "Meet the Press Sunday." It's a short hop from Gingrich's slur to Ronald Reagan's attacks on "strapping young bucks" buying "T-bone steaks" with food stamps. Blaming our first black president for the sharp rise in food-stamp reliance (which resulted from the economic crash that happened on the watch of our most recent white president) is just the latest version of Rush Limbaugh suggesting that Obama's social policy amounts to "reparations" for black people.

But when host David Gregory suggested the term had racial overtones, Gingrich replied "That's bizarre," and added, "I have never said anything about President Obama which is racist." That's not quite as extreme or silly as Donald Trump declaring "I am the least racist person there is," but it's up there. He also told Georgia Republicans Friday that 2012 will be the most momentous election "since 1860," which happens to be the year we elected the anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln president, and he suggested the U.S. bring back a "voting standard" that requires voters to  prove they know American history -- which sounds a lot like the "poll tests" outlawed by the Voting Rights Act.

Just last week Gingrich said Obama "knows how to get the whole country to resemble Detroit," which just happens to be home to many black people. And last year Gingrich accused Obama of "Kenyan anti-colonialist behavior" that made him "outside our comprehension" as Americans, spreading Dinesh D'Souza's idiocy that Obama inherited angry African anti-colonialism from the Kenyan father he never knew. “This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president,” Gingrich told the National Review Online last year.

All this from the guy who's supposed to be the "smart" candidate for the GOP nomination?

Republicans have done well with their quest to stigmatize social welfare programs as handouts to the undeserving, and to pretend that most of the undeserving are black people. But it may not be working as well today. Paul Ryan's class-war budget is going down in flames, largely because seniors are up in arms over Ryan's attacks on Medicare. Ryan and his GOP allies tried to be clever, making sure his plans to phase out Medicare wouldn't apply to today's seniors, who happen to be disproportionately white and disproportionately Republican. But seniors are seeing through the ruse, telling Ryan and the GOP that they want to protect Medicare for their children, too. Even Gingrich is now backing away from the Ryan budget, telling Gregory it's too "radical" and "too big a jump." A jump off a political cliff for Republicans, that is.

Let's hope Gingrich's attacks on our "food stamp president" backfire, too. I learned about the ex-GOP speaker's latest use of the term from the group Catholic Democrats, which Tweeted Sunday morning that the twice-divorced Catholic convert ought to have a look at Catholic social teaching if he's going to call himself a Catholic. The American bishops have lately been trying to remind Americans (and themselves, perhaps) that Catholic social teaching is about more than abortion. The church has long been a force on behalf of the poor and powerless, going back to Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor) at the height of the Gilded Age in 1891, which put the church on the side of labor organizing, through Pope Benedict's "Caritas in Veritate" (Charity in Truth) of 2009, which restated the church's commitment to support for workers and the poor worldwide, in the wake of the greed-driven financial crisis of 2008.

House Speaker John Boehner got a taste of the rising Catholic concern for social justice when 83 Catholic scholars wrote to Boehner protesting his attacks on programs for the poor, after Boehner was chosen as Catholic University's commencement speaker. They didn't call on the university to cancel Boehner's address, unlike Catholic conservatives who protested Obama's commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009). They wrote:

Your voting record is at variance from one of the church's most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policymakers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it.

The scholars also noted that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called Boehner-promoted Ryan budget as "anti-life" for its cuts to programs for pregnant women and children. Boehner's commencement address went on Saturday with a quiet protest from students who wore green placards reading "Where's the compassion, Speaker Boehner?" over their graduation gowns. Of course the Catholic Boehner didn't address the controversy; instead he shed tears remembering how his high school football coach called him the morning he became speaker to tell him "you can do it," which he considered an answer to his prayers.

Boehner may have been crying about what his support of the Ryan budget is doing to House GOP re-election chances. Gingrich could find that his racially coded attacks on Obama backfire as well. Both the poverty rate and the unemployment rate for white Americans have doubled since the start of this recession. Maybe Republican policies will succeed in uniting Americans across racial lines for a change, as more people see them as favoring one minority -- the super-rich -- over the rest of us.


By Joan Walsh

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2012 Elections Barack Obama Newt Gingrich