Unpacking Newt’s South Carolina Win: Food Stamps, Apocalypse and Zombies Candidates

Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary over the weekend.  This may all be a historical blip depending on what happens in Florida, but if Gingrich wins that state we could see a drawn out primary.  Conservative and liberal writers are trying to make sense of what happened, and conservative writers and the conservative establishment are starting to panic.  But Gingrich’s win is really the conservative establishment’s chickens coming home to roost, as their recent actions made Gingrich’s campaign a winner in three key ways.

Food Stamp President  There’s been a bunch written about how Gingrich’s attack of food stamps brings up images of racism embedded in pre-welfare reform arguments.  You can see the standing ovation for Gingrich’s arguments in the video linked above for what this looks like in practice.  But beyond the specifics of a singular program, the imagery of food stamps links back to the Tea Party vision of the welfare state.

A common trope for conservative policy intellectuals is that they want to “means test” the welfare state – reduce its availability for those with high wealth and income and focus it on those with the least wealth and income.  But the Tea Party base wants the opposite – they are opposed to a welfare state for the poor, young people, undocumented workers and other groups they think are undeserving.  The welfare state is worthwhile for people like themselves, but should be nonexistent or a burdensome affair for people they think don’t make the cut.

From the latest research on the Tea Party we learn that “Tea Partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients…The fundamental distinction for them is not state vs. individual, it is the division of the United States into ‘workers’ vs. ‘people who don’t work.’”  This is welfare as private charity, charity conditional on fitting certain expectations, not as an unconditional right.

Food stamps are a particularly smart form of stimulus and redistribution.  But the conservative mind doesn’t see the economy as something that is defective when involuntary unemployment shoots up or something that should work to the advantage of those who have the least.  To them, the threat of people going hungry for failing in the market is what creates the ability to thrive in that market.  The market doesn’t just reward the successful, it punishes those who fall behind.  Food stamps deny people of that experience and leave them dependent; some conservatives are running once again with the idea that a base of people receiving aid in this Great Recession creates a permanent Democratic coalition by design.  Conservative elites nursing this Tea Party movement now have to deal with what the Tea Party policy agenda looks like, and Gingrich is capable of understanding and amplifying that appeal.

Apocalypse Visions  I’m not sure what the conservative establishment actually looks like.  But I imagine that a conservative establishment criticism of President Obama is that he’s in over his head, has weakened the economy by insulting the business community and “job creators” in both tone and policy, is ignoring the deficit which is also keeping the recovery in check and wants to raise taxes to expand the government even further. If that’s your critique, then Mitt Romney is your guy.  That’s his criticism as well, and his supposed strengths as a manager play to that critique.

If you think that President Obama has tried to realize a Marxist, socialist state at home while apologizing and undermining its power abroad, you need a candidate who will defend the country with an equal and opposite force.  In the 1990s, as the conservative writer James Poulos noted here, Newt used to keep a sign that stated he was an “advocate of civilization, defender of civilization, teacher of the rules of civilization, arouser of those who form civilization, organizer of the pro-civilization activists, and leader ‘possibly’ of the civilizing forces.”  If the battle is for the very stakes of civilization itself, then you need a candidate who can match the apocalyptic vision.  Gingrich can, Romney can’t.

Here endless number of books, op-eds, interviews and other conservative infrastructure products proclaiming President Obama a Marxist, a socialist and a fundamental threat to the United States have stoked this debate.  From the talk radio stations to the President of AEI arguing that Obama presents two choices – one where  “America will continue to be a unique and exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism” – the stakes have never been higher for the conservative self-image.

Gingrich has amplified the most buffoonish version of these arguments, noting “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?  That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”  Romney has tried to say these things, but Gingrich clearly believes it more.

Zombie Candidates  TP Carney notes that South Carolina is where “where the GOP establishment historically builds a firewall against insurgents.”  It probably more accurately described as the place where weak candidates have run out of money.  As a Democratic fundraiser once noted about primaries, “People don’t lose campaigns. They run out of money and can’t get their planes in the air. That’s the reality.”  That quote is from this post by Mark Schmitt on how the current campaign reflects the free-for-all of the post Citizens United ruling:

In the old system, money really mattered. It made or broke campaigns. Mostly it broke them. But it was the lack of money that really shaped the system. It was an invisible primary in which many candidates were excluded either before it started or soon into it….

So whereas in the 1990s we had candidates who died prematurely — they ran out of money while they still had a chance — we now have, in effect, zombie candidates. They’re alive and can spend money and attack Mitt Romney even though their actual political lives are over….it’s also moved to a scale where everything changes. Money becomes an end in itself. It shapes the behavior of campaign consultants, who can now become very, very rich. It’s increasingly disconnected from candidates themselves or the incentives that might make sense for them…

A bunch of zombie candidates attacking Mitt Romney with money to burn might be welcome for Democrats, who can use their research and language in the fall, but it’s no more the ideal democratic process than was the old one, when candidates had to quit because they ran out of money, not votes. We need a campaign finance system that both limits the excesses and gives real candidates a means to be heard.

Citizens United has likely ended a huge portion of the work of the invisible primary, but allowing random billionaires to indefinitely keep whatever campaigns they like on life support doesn’t strike me as a better outcome.  $5 million dollars is not a lot of money to a handful of citizens and corporations, domestic or international, and as we can see it has allowed Gingrich to stay in the election when it looked like he would have been defeated.  If the primary turns into a long battle of millions of dollars in attack ads on Republicans for the next several months, they’ll have one of the major conservative achievements of the past decade, Citizens United’s destruction of campaign finance regulation, to blame for it.

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2 Responses to Unpacking Newt’s South Carolina Win: Food Stamps, Apocalypse and Zombies Candidates

  1. Pingback: A prebuttal for tonight’s debate | Punditocracy

  2. Charlie says:

    “Food Stamp president” racist? It is to a racist. The numbers support the assertion that the president pursued policies that left “the dole” as the only viable options for millions of people, regardless of race. The Standing “O” was not about anuone’s race, but about one man’s effectiveness.

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