There was a moment in his South Carolina victory speech Saturday night when we saw a strange and unfamiliar Newt Gingrich, the humble and generous GOP winner. He praised all of his Republican rivals personally, even Mitt Romney, and marveled at how they "reflected the openness of the American system …The fact is, if you look at the four of us, we are proof that you can come from a wide range of backgrounds." For a second it seemed he might even include President Obama, whose story certainly exemplifies the nation's capacity for inclusion and upward mobility, whether or not you support his policies.
He didn't, of course. After his moment of kindness, Gingrich pivoted back to viciousness, attacking Obama and Democrats as not really American. "The fact is," he told his cheering audience, "we want to run not a Republican campaign, we want to run an American campaign." He pledged allegiance to "American exceptionalism … the American Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, the American Federalist Papers." Get the point yet? Newt's an American, and the other guy isn't.
Thus the new Newt became the old Newt – in fact, he became Richard Nixon. The House speaker turned wealthy corporate "strategist" turned insurgent GOP hero has promised to make his campaign about the American-ness of Barack Obama. Because, folks, that's all he's got.
In fact, that's all his party's got. It's a sign of the GOP's political bankruptcy that the race has come down to Gingrich vs. Romney. The Republican primary is laying bare exactly what the party's 40-year divide and conquer strategy has accomplished. Mitt and Newt are the two faces of the modern GOP. Romney, the man from Bain, provides a case study in how finance capital has hollowed out the middle class and enriched the top 1 percent over the last 30 years. Gingrich personifies the GOP's politics of resentment, often fired by racism, that let the top 1 percent do that, driven by fear that government was favoring the undeserving poor. Instead government began to favor the undeserving wealthy.
Barring the unlikely, one of these two men will face a president whose approval numbers have been rising since he stopped placating Republicans and began talking regularly about income inequality and the nation's jobs and opportunity crisis. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, on the very same day that Romney released his scandalous but perfectly legal tax returns, Obama called income inequality "the defining issue of our time." He hammered away at the need for millionaires (including himself) to pay a higher share of taxes, and for the U.S. to return to the post World War II ethos of government creating opportunity for everyone. One of his guests in the gallery was Warren Buffett's secretary Debbie Bosanek, made famous when Buffett declared that wealthy folks like him – and Mitt Romney – shouldn't pay a lower tax rate than his secretary. Bosanek earns a reported $60,000 a year and pays about 30 percent in taxes; Romney made $21 million in 2010 and paid 13.9 percent.
"That’s not right," Obama said, talking about the wealthy's tax breaks generally, of course, not mentioning Romney by name. "Americans know it’s not right. They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to their country’s future, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility." He adapted Elizabeth Warren's big campaign applause line -- "No one in this country got rich on their own" -- to say, "No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs."
Clearly Obama is happy to pit his version of American values against Gingrich and Romney's, and if he keeps highlighting the contrast, he'll win in November. Especially if the GOP primary tears the party apart like it threatens to.
I don't see how Romney or Gingrich can win alone, without one another. They represent the contradictions the party has successfully contained since the days of Nixon. The wealthy Romney is getting killed by his unpopularity with middle- and working-class Republican primary voters. Steve Kornacki laid the divide bare: In all three GOP primary contests so far, Romney won hugely among voters who make over $200,000 – and lost those who make less than $50,000 a year just about as decisively. They went for the angry Gingrich overwhelmingly.
So Romney has a problem. He's denouncing Democrats for fomenting "the politics of envy," but his political problems start with non-wealthy Republicans, and the issue isn't jealousy, it's justice. People don't begrudge his wealth. They have questions about the way he's earned it, and the way he and his friends have rigged the tax system so that he keeps far more of his money than the rest of us do.
Romney is the gift that keeps on giving to Democrats. Releasing his tax returns the same day as Obama's populist State of the Union speech makes you wonder if he has a Democratic mole high in his campaign. The problem with the documents wasn't his wealth. Yes, he made $21 million each of the last two years, even though he didn't have an actual job. (Remember when he himself told voters "I'm also unemployed.") But we already knew he was fabulously wealthy. His taxes became an issue, whereas they weren't in 2008, because the country is newly sensitive about issues of tax and wealth inequality, and Romney's returns exposed the largest inequity of all – the way investment income is taxed at a far lower rate than income earned from working.
Because his income came mainly from interest and dividend payments, he paid an effective tax rate of only 13.9 percent, lower than the rate paid by cops, teachers, firefighters and Warren Buffett's secretary, and far lower than the 35 percent marginal rate that's supposed to apply to people who make more than $350,000 a year. But you're only taxed at that rate if you work for your money; if your money works for you, you're paying 15 percent, or even less, as Romney's returns show. The great reporter David Cay Johnston called that two-tiered tax system "separate and unequal" on MSNBC today, and he's right.
Romney's work at Bain Capital provides another case study in the sources of American economic inequality, spotlighting the way finance capitalism has helped dismantle the American middle class. There's no fair way to measure how many jobs Romney's work created, or destroyed. But job creation was never the point of Bain Capital; making money for its partners was. If a company lost jobs, even if it went bankrupt, Romney and his colleagues still earned millions in fees, which were taxed at the 15 percent rate. So Romney mostly invested other people's money, but got taxed the same as if he'd invested his own money. How's that for fairness? Even Romney's current income from Bain is taxed like investment income, although he retired from active participation in the firm almost 20 years ago.
Bain and other private equity firms have also made millions by borrowing money and burdening the companies they buy with huge debt obligations, often paying themselves additional fees. And remember interest payments on all that debt are tax-free, subsidized by the government. Read Derek Thompson and James Surowiecki to understand exactly what's so politically damaging about Romney's career and the wealth it continues to provide him.
Understandably, Newt Gingrich is trying to run away from his career as the pro-big business House speaker and later, the corporate grifter who got rich taking millions from Freddie Mac and the healthcare industry. Amazingly, he's reinvented himself as an Everyman, running against "elites" in New York, Washington and San Francisco. I live in San Francisco; maybe he's talking about people like me. Just to be clear: I never had a half-million dollar Tiffany credit line, Mr. Speaker. I've never been part of the top 1 percent.
But Gingrich got smacked down by GOP leaders, most important Rush Limbaugh, when he tried to make an issue of what he and Rick Perry called Romney's "vulture capitalism." It never made any sense anyway, coming from Gingrich. He's the guy who wants to lower the capital gains rate to zero, so slavishly does he represent the interests of the top 1 percent. Now Gingrich stays away from the issue of how Romney and finance capital "elites" make their money, and merely accuses his rival of being insufficiently true to the conservative cause, even though he's flip-flopped on core issues almost as much as Romney. He's able to trash Romney as part of the elite, too -- but only because he was governor of Massachusetts, not because of his wealth or career in predatory capitalism. That's the faux-class warfare Republicans have practiced since Nixon: railing not at the rich, but at a made-up new class of pointy-headed intellectuals and elite do-gooders who allegedly side with the unworthy poor over the working class.
Sadly, the white working class has taken the bait for at least the last 40 years. I write a lot about how the politics of race helped drive many whites who aren't wealthy to vote against their own economic self-interest. Now their shift to the GOP may be permanent, although Obama got more of their votes in 2008 than John Kerry or Al Gore. The Obama campaign seems uncertain about how hard to work for their support in 2012, but acknowledges that they'd like to keep the GOP's edge to the 18 points it was in 2008 rather than the 30 points it became in 2010.
Romney could make Obama's task easier, given his troubles with the GOP working- and middle-class voters. Gingrich thinks he can make it harder. He's made it clear he's going to fight Obama fiercely for that white vote – and he'll do whatever it takes to win it. He's trashed the president for his alleged "Kenyan, anti-colonial mind-set," called him "the food stamp president" and questioned his American identity. We've already seen him acknowledge the racial edge to the "food stamp president" slur, by insisting the NAACP should stop "demanding" food stamps and start demanding paychecks, then flip-flop the next week and deny there was any racial component to his remarks. But then he likes to have it both ways, as his ex-wife learned.
But is there any chance Gingrich's food stamp rhetoric could backfire? Some analysts say maybe, given that white people make up the majority of food stamp recipients, and the white poverty rate has doubled in the recession (though the black poverty rate is still twice as high). It might even backfire in Florida, where unemployment is over 10 percent and more than a quarter of homes are under water. Reuters reported Wednesday that food stamp use among white Floridians is up, too. "I'd say 80 percent of the people are working or just lost their job when they come in for food stamps," a supervisor for the Florida Department of Children and Families told Reuters. "You used to hear all the comments when I was a kid about 'Welfare Cadillacs,' but that's not really something you see much," he said. A Florida Republican who's now resorting to food stamps told the Reuters reporter she remains undecided on her presidential choice for 2012. Will she vote for someone who derides the "food stamp president"?
So it's possible Gingrich may modulate his food stamp rhetoric, too. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels began the transition in his SOTU rebuttal Tuesday night, merely bashing Obama's "pro-poverty policies," which makes roughly the same point but with a little more gentility. Deprived of the ability to demonize either vulture capitalists or welfare queens, where will Gingrich go? He'll obviously double down on the story line that the president himself is the "other" that his white working-class audience has learned to fear, maybe without the overlay of welfare-bashing. He's just not "American." And Gingrich has a lot of company in his party: Romney's taken to blaming the president for creating a "European-style social welfare state" – rather than a good old American one – and just Tuesday House Speaker John Boehner called Obama's politics "almost un-American." Almost.
I think both Romney and Gingrich are going to have a harder time casting Obama as un-American the more the president proves he's willing to fight for people who aren't rich and stand up to predators. Democrats have to acknowledge, though, that working- and middle-class voters have reason to believe the party abandoned them to cater to the wealthy. We're wrong when we only blame racism for the white working-class deserting the party. The problem is particularly clear when you look at bipartisan collusion to privilege the financial sector over the rest of us. The capital gains tax rate began coming down under Jimmy Carter, and although Ronald Reagan lowered it further still, he agreed to raise it in his 1986 budget deal. But it came down again, from 28 to 20 percent, under Bill Clinton. Clinton also presided over the repeal of Glass-Steagall laws, which the former president now says he regrets, and since then Democrats have worked as hard as Republicans to protect the scandalous "carried interest" rule, that lets investment sector guys like Romney depict their compensation as "carried interest" from earlier investments, and thus be taxed at the 15 percent rate. Andrew Leonard has a great rundown here.
Meanwhile, a disturbing number of Democrats, from the Clinton and Obama White Houses to the House and Senate, have gone into or come from investment banking. For his first two years Obama continued to kowtow to the financial sector, even in the face of scandalous risk-taking and wrongdoing that almost wrecked the entire economy. Instead of being punished, or having to live with the risk inherent to capitalism, investment bankers were rewarded by both political parties for their poor performance, with taxpayer-funded bailouts that then helped finance record bonuses. And we wonder why the prevailing party lost the 2010 elections (on top of 10 percent unemployment)?
Since September, however, Obama has tried to make clear he wants to be the president of the 99 percent, and his SOTU speech, on the day of Romney's tax return release, continued his drive in that direction. He even announced a belated effort to investigate and prosecute mortgage fraud, with a "financial crimes unit" headed by New York's crusading Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (of course, the unit's actual power is unclear). He's sharpening the choice the country will have before it in November, and I think that's good for Democrats.
Before that, Republicans have a big choice, and neither option is great for the party. Mitt scares the GOP's working-class and middle-income voters. Newt scares the rest of us. I find myself thinking maybe they'll team up, but it's hard to imagine the forces behind each man, let alone the egos, reconciling easily. The Republican Party is cracking up, freighted with forces that don't reconcile easily. Obama's path to reelection is a lot easier with these two as his opponents.