Newt Gingrich's new tactic is a gift to Barack Obama

The candidate has taken a break from dog whistles to stir up class resentment with his latest attack

Progressives are once again gnashing their teeth over the dog-whistle politics of Republican Newt Gingrich. In Iowa, the former House Speaker hammered away on poor kids, food-stamp recipients and other red-meat issues, and the Tea Party faithful, ever attuned to the misery of the undeserving, appeared to respond. He did it again in South Carolina on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when he told Juan Williams, black journalist, that Barack Obama was a terrific "food stamp president."

Cue the delight of the audience. Yet Newt's apparent race-baiting hasn't much improved his standing in the polls. According to the latest Rasmussen survey (which leans rightward), Mitt Romney remains the runaway favorite among primary voters at 35 per cent. Gingrich is second at 21 per cent. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul each have 16 per cent for third.

With so many Americans jobless, debt-ridden or out of their minds with worry over the health insurance companies fighting over every nickel, it's stunning that voters are reacting to Newt's brand of plantation politics. Gingrich had no practical solutions. He thinks he can jumpstart the economy by changing the Federal Reserve's monetary policy from being partly focused on inflation to being entirely focused on it. Forget about full employment. Let the market decide that.

What's striking about Gingrich's strategy in South Carolina hasn't been the race-baiting. Pot-shots like those come cheap. What's striking is that an astonishing $5m is being used to portray the quarter-billionaire Romney as a capitalist robber-baron straight out of the Gilded Age.

Gingrich's well-heeled supporters could have used that $5m, which goes a long, long way in South Carolina, to assail Romney's Mormonism, his record as governor of a blue state, "Romneycare," his Yankee pedigree or his bionic mien. There's so much material here that it could make even Romney regret a corporation's cash-flush right to freedom of speech.

Instead, his supporters chose to depict Romney, the former head of Bain Capital, as a Wall Street tycoon responsible for sending jobs overseas, closing down factories and destroying lives. The short film focusing on Bain echoes charges made by the Occupy Movement: that market fundamentalism, which pledges allegiance to low taxes and deregulation, is not the solution but the very source of everyone's problems.

With this attack on "vulture capitalism," Gingrich is still aiming to stir up resentment among white middle-class voters over 50. But it's not just resentment steeped in racism (and as Gingrich's attack of poor blacks illustrates, racial resentments are obviously a part of his larger mode of politicking). It's a resentment that the political left has been trying to build a coalition around since forever -- the resentment of class.

It seems that Gingrich is obliquely conceding that the American class system isn't a figment of a liberal's imagination. His attacks also suggest that Republicans are aware of the fallacy of their own worn-out ideology.

I don't mean the ideology of low taxes and deregulation, though these are never far from their minds. I mean that the GOP uniformly believes that one's world view determines one's material conditions. A good outlook, they would say, equals a good paycheck. Failure, then, is a discrete and personal problem. Individuals need reforming, not social systems.

Anyone who has traded his labour for money knows this is false. A superlative attitude isn't going to magically generate upward mobility. Failure, then, is structural. Social systems need reforming, not individuals.

Progressives have long dreamed of building a coalition that cuts across racial divides to unite workers in common cause. Republicans typically don't. Yet they have no answers to pressing economic issues. The only way they can win is to divide and conquer using the deep entrenchments of race, and they have been doing that successfully for 30 years.

Gingrich parlayed racial resentment into a Republican takeover of the House in 1994. But it should come as no surprise that he was able to do that at the dawn of the most rapid expansion of the economy in US history. When the economy was good, voters could afford racism.

But that might not work now, no matter how hard he tries to invoke Nixon's Silent Majority. The economy has languished too long. The Cold War has faded; civil rights are integrated, if not fully honoured. "Socialism" now isn't even a bad word for a majority of young Americans.

Progressives, including Democrats, have called Gingrich's suicide-bombing of Romney's campaign a sign of the GOP's ideological end times. That may be true. More importantly, it may signal a shift in our national social conscious. The culture war was always illusory. It is supremely ironic that an old culture warrior like Gingrich may end up removing the veil from voters' eyes to see what truly oppresses them: those, like Mitt Romney and Wall Street firms like Bain Capital, who control the means of production.

Thanks to Gingrich, NBC's Matt Lauer asked Romney if envy fueled the debate over income inequality -- and Romney said yes! President Obama got a great gift that day. Let's hope he makes the best of it.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Clinton and Trump: do presidential debates really matter?

The ability of the candiates to perform in front of the cameras is unlikely to impact the final result.

The upcoming televised presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated for many years. No doubt there are various surprises in store – this has been, after all, the most surprising of campaigns.

People will be particularly fascinated to see if Trump dials down his bombastic rhetoric and perhaps even adds some substance to the vague policy pronouncements he has made so far. To a lesser extent, many will also be interested in whether Clinton can add the necessary zest to what some consider her lacklustre style, and whether she can prove she’s made a sterling recovery from her recent bout with pneumonia.

It’s possible that some voters may in fact change their minds based on what they see in the two’s only on-camera encounters. And yet, barring a true disaster or devastating triumph, it’s unlikely that anything the candidates say or do will make much difference to the overall result.

This might not seem all that surprising for these two candidates in particular. Leaving aside how long they’ve both been in public life, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have put Clinton and Trump under incredible scrutiny ever since they announced their respective candidacies – and their every sentence and gesture has already been analysed in the greatest detail.

Trump in particular has received more free publicity from the networks and Twitter than even he could afford, and it’s highly unlikely that he will say anything that the US public hasn’t heard before. Similarly, voters’ impressions of Clinton are apparently so deeply entrenched that she probably won’t change many people’s minds.

Yet there are also broader reasons why presidential TV debates are less important than we might imagine.

Looking the part

Even before the media environment became as saturated as it is today, debates were rarely, if ever, decisive in presidential elections. The exception was possibly the very first TV debate in 1960, which pitted the then vice-president, Richard Nixon, against John F. Kennedy.

At the time, the election was so close that the young, relatively inexperienced but highly telegenic Kennedy was able to reap the benefits of putting his case directly to viewers. He was the underdog; a relative unknown in comparison to Nixon and so had more to gain from such national exposure. Nixon, as the establishment figure, had a lot to lose.

In the end, Kennedy’s narrow victory may well have been because of his debate performances. But his success also demonstrated another important feature of television debates: that viewers take more notice of what they see than what they hear.

Notoriously, television viewers responded very favourably to Kennedy’s film-star good looks, but were turned off by Nixon, who refused to wear make-up and looked sweaty and uncomfortable under the studio lights. In contrast, those who listened on the radio believed that Nixon had come out on top. It seems that viewers saw Kennedy as more “presidential” than Nixon, especially given his calmness under pressure. Kennedy did work hard to exploit some of Nixon’s weaknesses on policy, but in the end, that turned out not to be the point.

Kennedy’s success was one of the reasons that neither of his two successors, Lyndon B. Johnson and then a resurgent Nixon, participated in any such events when they were running for the presidency. Although some debates were held in the primaries, there were no face-to-face contests between presidential candidates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.

The next debates were held in 1976, another tight campaign. These yielded a notorious moment in the second encounter between Gerald R Ford and Jimmy Carter, when the incumbent Ford appeared to throw the election away with a poorly judged remark declaring that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. As myth has it, this gaffe stalled Ford’s polling surge; he ultimately lost the election.

Yet even this was not decisive. Although the comment did the president no favours, it’s highly debatable whether it in fact had an impact on the overall result; Ford actually closed the polling gap with Carter between the debates and the general election. People’s reactions to the debate had less to do with the substance of his remark and much more with the media’s constant replay and analysis of that moment, which continues to mar Ford’s reputation to this day.

Selective memory

This pattern has continued in the election cycles that have followed, as slips and awkward moments rather than substance provide the media with dominant themes. Many people recall vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle’s cack-handed attempt to compare himself to Kennedy in 1988, or George Bush senior’s ill-judged glance at his watch when listening to a question in 1992; few probably remember much about what policies they discussed, or whether, if they won, they carried them out.

If anything, the shortcomings of the TV debate format have become more pronounced in the current cycle. Although neither of the main candidates in this year’s election wants for national exposure, the primary debates have tended to favour the underdog and those who claim to be outsiders.

On the Republican side, Trump’s various moderate competitors were one by one hobbled and engulfed; Clinton, for her part, spent months slugging it out with her remarkably successful left-wing rival Bernie Sanders, never quite landing a televised knockout punch and ultimately only defeating him properly after six months of primaries.

While credible policy proposals seem to matter less than ever, things that would have once been considered catastrophic gaffes have become par for the course. Indeed, one could argue that Trump’s success so far is because he has built his campaign on half-truths and outright lies without care for the consequences.

So despite all the anticipation, this year’s debates probably won’t tell us very much about what will happen after the president takes office next January; the analysis will almost certainly focus less on what the candidates have to say and more on how they say it. Voters will no doubt tune in in great, possibly record-breaking numbers, but they’ll come away with precious little sense of what’s in store for their country.

Equally, the spectacles we’re about to witness might be pyrotechnic enough, but they’re unlikely to decide the result in November. And in the unlikely event that they do, it won’t be for the right reasons.

Andrew Priest is a lecturer in Modern US History at the University of Essex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.