The low road code

    Coverage of the South Carolina primary would be incomplete without a frank acknowledgement of the state’s unique contributions to the Republican id.The same Republican id, the same low road code, that Newt Gingrich has been exploiting so brilliantly.South Carolina has long been ground zero for rough-and-tumble racial politics. When northern Democrats launched the push for civil rights in 1948, it was a South Carolinian, Strom Thurmond, who headed the segregationist Dixiecrat presidential ticket. After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, it was Thurmond who led the southern conservatives’ white flight out of the Democratic party and over to the GOP. In 1988, another South Carolinian, Thurmond protege Lee Atwater, birthed the idea of scaring white people away from Michael Dukakis by linking the Democratic presidential candidate to a black rapist. Atwater had already made his bones in South Carolina, eight years earlier, when he orchestrated a whispering campaign against the opposition’s congressional candidate, telling voters that the white Democrat was actually a member of the (gasp) NAACP.South Carolina is also the home of former Thurmond aide Joe Wilson, the Republican congressman who yelled “You lie!” at President Obama. Wilson, in an earlier incarnation, was one of the state lawmakers who voted to keep the Dixie rebel flag flying on the state capitol grounds. That flag, a symbol of slavery to African Americans, still flies on the capitol grounds.I don’t mean to suggest that all white South Carolinians are racist. Suffice it to say that, at the very least, many are racially tone deaf. I well recall, during one of my work trips, picking up a weekly suburban newspaper and reading a story that referred to a black political hopeful as a “dark hoss, no pun intended.”Which brings us to Newt. When he declared during the Monday night debate in South Carolina that Obama is “the best food stamp president in American history,” and that “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history,” he knew exactly what he was doing. When he declared that, unlike Obama, “we (Republicans) actually think that work is good,” he knew exactly what he was doing. Anyone who doesn’t believe he was pandering to prejudice should take a remedial course in racial coding.Naturally, the lily-white debate audience went wild. Newt plucked his rhetorical chords with the slowhand dexterity of Eric Clapton. And his riffs were bound to connect, anyway; this was a crowd that booed the mere mention of the word “Mexico.” (And the GOP thinks it can do better with Hispanics in 2012? Good luck with that.)It’s easy to see why Newt was playing the race card. The primary is Saturday and he’s scrambling to catch Mitt Romney. What better time to roll in the gutter, South Carolina style? “The best food stamp president” is code for saying “the black president who is signing up record numbers of lazy blacks, so that they can get more handouts on the government dime.”Yes, the best way to pander to the willfully ignorant – and thus gain ground in the GOP race – is to pepper them with lies. Newt did so, via his seral insinuations.For starters, Obama doesn’t “put” anyone on food stamps. The federal Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides qualifying low-income people with vouchers to buy food, is voluntary. More people tend to sign up for the program when times are tough. Times have been tough since the Great Recession struck us with full force – before Obama even took office. And times have been tough across all racial lines; according to the 2010 Census, 74 percent of SNAP recipients are not black.Thanks largely to the recession, the number of SNAP recipients has jumped 65 percent since 2008. But that’s not the only reason. Signing up has become easier, due to eligibility rules that were loosened in 2002 and in 2008 – during the Bush administration. Indeed, the number of SNAP recipients rose in seven of the eight Bush years. The total number jumped by 63 percent during Bush’s tenure. Oddly, I don’t ever recall hearing Newt tag Bush as a “food stamp president.”And it’s a lie to even imply that SNAP recipients are shiftless slackers; according to the 2010 census, 41 percent of recipients live in a household where somebody works. In other words, the working poor are swelling the food stamp rolls, seeking help because their low-paying jobs (at a time of severe wage stagnation) can’t put enough food on the table.The braying debate crowd naturally knew nothing about these nuances – and nobody on that stage, least of all Newt, dared try to enlighten them. Just as Strom Thurmond used to inveigh back in the day against “the nigra race,” the best way to corral white Palmetto State voters, on the eve of a contemporary Republican primary, is to remind them that Obama doesn’t look quite like the kind of president they would clearly prefer.  No wonder Newt’s tawdry rhetorical tactic went unchallenged. When the heat of competition is fiercest in South Carolina, moral cowardice is very good politics. That’s how the game is played, and it continues to debase us all.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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