In the Arena

Newt on Fire

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Charleston, South Carolina

I have a new print column, which TIME subscribers can find here, about the most riveting four minutes of the campaign so far–the confrontation between Newt Gingrich and Juan Williams in the Myrtle Beach debate on Monday. That confrontation seems to have given Gingrich a major boost: most of the polls taken since the debate show Gingrich wiping out Romney’s lead in South Carolina, and the campaign in a dead heat. Romney, meanwhile, seems in panic mode, making mistake after mistake–and all the mistakes lead back to one source: his wealth. A good friend of mine who is a political consultant says, “No one ever wins a nomination without a near-death experience.” This may be Romney’s.

Meanwhile, the interesting thing to me about the Gingrich-Williams confrontation was that both men were sort of right. Juan was certainly right that Newt is sending dog whistles to the melanin-deprived. Calling Barack Obama “the greatest food stamp President in American history”  is one such. Food stamp use has rocketed because of a fierce recession, which Obama did nothing to cause. In fact, you could argue that Gingrich had a lot more to do with the recession than Obama did: Newt’s Congressional legions passed the legislation that prevented regulation of financial derivatives; he was later paid more than $1 million by Freddie Mac, which exploited the deregulated atmosphere–and helped create the housing bubble that popped in 2008. By Newt’s own standards of invective, he could be called “the greatest subprime mortgage politician in American history.”

Gingrich is on much firmer ground in his approach to poverty. His central principle is reciprocal responsibility, a principle that was enshrined during the Clinton presidency–every government handout should come with strings attached. Hence, Gingrich’s excellent idea of linking long-term unemployment insurance to participation in a job training program (or, I would add, a community college-based skills upgrade). And, as noted here before, I was responsible for the idea of kids taking some responsibility for keeping their schools clean–although my idea involved all kids (and their parents, on weekends), not just the poor. It would have reduced the amount we pay for janitorial services and increased the sense of community and responsibility, the same way that a public service requirement outside the schools does. My proposal, made in a column 21 years ago, was a communitarian dog whistle–audible only to the most high-minded canines…