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Kurt A. Gardinier Headshot

Is Newt Race-Baiting?

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If asked, Newt Gingrich would obviously say no, in his arrogant, 'you're asking me a ridiculously stupid question' sort of way, but it sure sounds like he is lately. And if he is, he may be doing the "right" thing politically. At least for now as the next two primaries take place in the south (South Carolina and Florida).

Over the past few weeks Gingrich asserted that the poor children of the country need to learn how to work, and he has repeatedly called President Obama "the best food stamp president in American history," which inspired enthusiastic applause at Monday's Fox News GOP Debate, and a standing ovation shortly thereafter. During a campaign event in New Hampshire earlier this month, Gingrich told an audience, "If the NAACP invites me, I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." Is he suggesting that African-Americans choose not to work and are satisfied with not working and receiving food stamps? Seems like it. And it doesn't seem like he's even trying to be subtle about it.

The race-baiting strategy proved an effective one for another politician from the south. George Wallace. The four-time Alabama Governor who ran for president in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 (three as a Democrat and one on the American Independent ticket). His most successful run was in '68 where he won five states (all southern), 46 electoral votes and 13.5% (nearly 10 million) of the popular vote (Wallace remains the last third party candidate to win any electoral votes). And he accomplished all that without ever really saying anything overtly racist, but he spoke in code, a code that was easily deciphered by the millions of white southern voters who supported him.

In the George Wallace show I produced for C-SPAN's "The Contenders" series in November, Wallace's daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy said that her father "was not a racist. He was a politician." There is certainly a case to be made that he was not a racist, or at the very least that he wasn't always one. During the 1958 campaign for governor, Wallace said, "if I didn't have what it took to treat a man fair regardless of his color, then I don't have what it takes to be the governor of your great state." His tone on race drastically changed during his next run for governor four years later when he famously called for "segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever" during his inaugural address.

Whether or not Wallace was truly a racist or not, he effectively used racism (however subtle it may have been) as a prominent theme of his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. Gingrich seems to be doing just that in his current campaign (nearly forty years since Wallace last ran for President), aiming to make radical, latently racist ideas seem somehow acceptable or mainstream by articulating them clearly, confidently and unapologetically.

In the 1995 book From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994, author Dan T. Carter discusses the role of right-wing reaction to the civil rights movement in Republican politics beginning with George Wallace's entrance on to the national scene, arguing that conservatives still exploit racism for political gain. According to Carter, Gingrich was already in the Wallace/race-baiting category back in the early 1990s, so it doesn't surprise me that these race-baiting allegations are being thrown at him now. Carter writes of the strategy of using race to win elections: "The trick lay in sympathizing with and appealing to the fears of angry whites without appearing to become an extremist and driving away moderates-or, as Ehrlichman described the process, to present a position on crime, education, or public housing in such a way that a voter could 'avoid admitting to himself that he was attracted by a racist appeal.'" This tactic seems like a tough thing to pull off, but so far Gingrich seems to be doing it, and effectively, as he continues to rise in the South Carolina polls.

No one will ever truly know if Gingrich is a racist (or if Wallace truly was for that matter) or if he is consciously race-baiting for votes, but like Wallace, he does seem to be speaking in the same kind of code, which may unfortunately work, at least in the short-term (in the upcoming southern primaries). With Governor Rick Perry dropping out of the race Thursday and endorsing Gingrich, who knows what will happen Saturday. It sure is likely that it'll be close, and as Gingrich continues to remind us, every Republican candidate since 1980 who has won the South Carolina primary has gone on to be the party's nominee for president.

Kurt A. Gardinier is a freelance producer, editor and writer who has worked at CNN, MSNBC, C-SPAN and various production companies.