Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised Thursday in New Hampshire if he is the GOP presidential nominee to go to the NAACP and “tell the African-American community why they should demand paychecks instead of food stamps,” as first reported by Slate.
Another GOP candidate, ex-Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, sounded like he told Iowa Republicans last week “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them someone’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”
(Santorum has now denied he used the word “black,” but the video of the event suggests he did). And earlier in the campaign, he argued Obama should be opposed to abortion, noting “I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, ‘we’re going to decide who are people and who are not people.’”)
All three comments were odd, as their invocations of race were unprompted by questions from the audiences. And they came as the two are campaigning for a presidential nomination in a party that is overwhelmingly white and in two states (Iowa and New Hampshire) with little racial diversity.
But here are three reasons why Santorum and Gingrich have brought up race in the campaign.
1. They’re trying to appeal to GOP primary voters — Republican base voters don’t just blame President Obama for the poor economy; they believe he is taking the country in a direction against its values.
Without using racial terms, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has made a similar argument to Gingrich, suggesting Obama wants to create an “entitlement society” instead of an “opportunity society.” Romney casts Obama as trying to send the country in a European direction.
The argument by Gingrich and Santorum suggests blacks and others who are out of work don’t want jobs, even as the overwhelming data on the recession suggests the problem is that are not enough jobs and too many applicants. Gingrich’s remark in particular seems aimed at the “welfare queens” Reagan invoked in the 1980s, arguing large segments of Americans simply don’t want to work.
2. They want to win black voters — Yes, this seems odd, as African-Americans are overwhelmingly Democratic and supportive of President Obama.
But Santorum (welfare reform) and Gingrich (education) have longed worked on issues that have major effects on Africans-Americans and would expect to convince some blacks they are better executors of those policies than Obama in a general election. Romney, a more risk-averse politician, would probably attend an NAACP convention if asked, but is unlikely to announce it as one of his goals so early in the race.
3. They believe their policy ideas would improve the black community — Rick Santorum speaks about poverty quite frequently for any politician, but particularly a Republican. He constantly talks about the importance of graduating from high school and getting married as the recipe for eliminating poverty, solutions that poverty experts of both parties and all races would say are good ideas, if hard for the government to impose.
Gingrich spent much of 2009 touring the country with the Rev. Al Sharpton as part of the “Education Equality Project,” an initiative that was aimed at increasing the number of charter schools to improve education for black and low-income children.
To be sure, Democrats would argue both Santorum and Gingrich’s proposals to drastically reduce government spending and reducing taxes would do little to help low-income African-Americans.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr