"The Party of Food Stamps"
In 1976, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the GOP presidential nomination. Running to the conservative right of Ford, Reagan in a speech to an overflow crowd at a Florida rally used a regional term of racial disrespect in explaining the outrage of working people in line at a supermarket when they saw "a strapping young buck" using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks.
Reagan, who I can attest was free of racial prejudice in his personal life, nevertheless benefited politically by resorting to the racial shorthand and stereotypes of U.S. politics.
Proving once again that politics is the most imitative of human arts, former Republican House Speaker and possible 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich urged GOP candidates to frame the voters' 2010 choice between "the Republican Party of paychecks" versus "the Democratic Party of food stamps." (Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.)
Forget the cruel indifference shown in this cheap bumper-sticker sloganeering toward American families out of work and out of luck with hungry children to feed. To belittle and disparage our neighbors and fellow citizens who in this national economic catastrophe need a helping hand is both unjust and fundamentally un-Christian.
But this is the same Gingrich who, just last month, praised as the "most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama" the bizarre assertion that the president (undoubtedly indoctrinated by his father, who deserted his family when he, Barack, was 2 years old) may well follow a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview.
Let us ask a simple question: What possible Republican primary voting bloc might the "Kenyan, anti-colonial" thesis provide most aid and comfort to? You guessed it: Newt was using code language to court the "Birthers" — the screwball caucus that insists, against all logic, that Obama was the agent of a master conspiracy to capture the White House when he was born in Indonesia, Kenya, Antarctica or, maybe, France.
Election season brings out the best in Gingrich. During the 1994 campaign, which would result in his becoming a national figure and House speaker, Susan Smith, a 23-year-old single mom of Union, S.C., told the police that her car — with her two sons, Michael, age 3, and Alexander, just 1 — had been taken by a black man.
Tearfully, she appealed over television to a rapt national audience for the safe return of her two little boys. Finally, Smith confessed that she, herself, had let her two little boys drown by strapping them in their seats and rolling their car into Long Lake.
For most American, this was an unbelievable human tragedy. For Newt Gingrich, it was an irresistible political opening. Here was Newt Gingrich's reaction: "I think the mother killing her two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. The only way to change things is to vote Republican."
After the "Democratic Party of food stamps " formulation, I asked Obama's chief campaign strategist and longtime observer of Gingrich, David Plouffe, for his reaction. Showing far more charity than I have been able to muster, Plouffe with a tinge of regret said, "It's sad to see because buried deep beneath him somewhere must still be a serious person."
But he did not underestimate the ex-speaker's political shrewdness, arguing that the pre-eminence within the Republican Party of figures like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and (Delaware Senate nominee) Christine O'Donnell — and his own 2012 ambitions — are "why he's saying those crazy things."
Whatever his motivations, Gingrich as of today is the most reckless man in American politics.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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