When you’re running for president – particularly on a limited budget – you need to garner as much media attention as you can manage. And when it comes to attracting the spotlight this year, nobody seems to be better at it than Newt Gingrich. Unfortunately, unlike Hollywood where all press is good press as long as they spell your name right, not all political coverage is good news. Newt seemed to prove that point once again when he let fly some comments on a theme he’s visited before.
Newt Gingrich’s comments about African-Americans and food stamps, made at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire yesterday, have made the expected media rounds — from Slate to The Daily Beast to The Associated Press to MSNBC — but the interpretation has changed somewhat along the way.
A reporter on the trail notes that Gingrich frequently says in his stump speeches that he would urge people to demand paychecks instead of food stamps — a talking point that it is not usually met with great alarm by the media. He also frequently says that he would go to the NAACP convention if it invited him. On Thursday morning, the two points came together when he said he would go to the NAACP convention and explain “why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”
This drew the predictable firestorm, and with good reason. Wanting to be the “paycheck president” instead of the “food stamp president” is a laudable goal, and it highlights the lack of jobs and rising poverty rates in the country under current policy. Newt is also correct in noting that some Republicans have, in the past, skipped opportunities to reach out to groups like the NAACP and expand the tent a bit. But combining the two in that fashion is just asking for trouble. The Gingrich campaign made an effort at some damage control a bit later. Newt’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond was allegedly seen kicking a door and yelling at a reporter about it.
“This theme of taking the conservative message to every American – including the N.A.A.C.P. — has been a constant refrain during Newt’s entire career.’’
He said it was not patronizing but an act of outreach to an organization usually ignored by Republicans. In a 2007 book Mr. Gingrich criticized President Bush for failing to address the N.A.A.C.P. It was a sign “to the African American community,” he wrote, “that Republicans did not see them as worthy of engagement in dialogue.’’
For a bit of tongue in cheek analysis, Steven Taylor chides, It’s a mystery why Republicans have trouble attracting black voters.
First, Gingrich isn’t just saying that getting a paycheck is better than getting food stamps. No, he is specifically saying that he needs to go tell black people that fact. The positioning here is clear: that arguably the largest and most well-known organization focusing on issues of significance to African-Americans needs Newt Gingrich to bring the message to tell persons of color that they need to get off food stamps. Because, of course, otherwise, who has the courage to point this out?
Second, this forwards a stereotype of minorities as being nothing but leeches on the system. In other words, Gingrich is not saying, as a generic notion, that citizens of the US should expect policies that produce jobs rather than simply relying on social policies to help them out. No, he wants to evangelize blacks on this subject. Indeed, he says as much when he says “the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps”—because, apparently, they, as a community, are currently satisfied with just getting handouts.
As I noted above, this may have just been a case of Gingrich being a bit tired and mixing two standard stump speech points together in an unfortunate fashion. But it’s easy to see how a comment like that opens him up to broadsides from critics. Newt may want to rethink that one before he trots it out again.