Former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) victory in Saturday’s South Carolina primary was fueled in part by comments aimed at driving a wedge between voters on the issue of race, House Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Sunday.
Gingrich’s campaign-trail remarks, argued the No.3 House Democrat and highest-ranking African American in Congress, are the latest iteration of a GOP tactic that stretches back to Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy and Ronald Reagan’s criticism of so-called “welfare queens” during his 1976 presidential bid.
“Well, sure it resonated -- not that it was true,” Clyburn said during an appearance on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” the morning after Gingrich’s primary win. “The fact of the matter is we all know the records are very clear: 49 percent of the people who are on welfare are white. We know that. But people think otherwise. We know that there never existed a ‘welfare queen.’ The admission was made long after Ronald Reagan that they created that out of whole cloth. But it worked.”
“And so, we had a welfare queen created by Ronald Reagan,” he added. “So Newt Gingrich, seeing all of this, decided that he would create a ‘food stamp king.’ And that’s what he did, and sure it resonated. But the fact of the matter is, nobody wants to be on food stamps. Everybody would want a job.”
Clyburn spoke the morning after Gingrich swept the first-in-the-South state of South Carolina, besting former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) by 12 points in a come-from-behind victory that has upended the GOP White House race.
“He went after the media down in Myrtle Beach,” Clyburn said of Gingrich. “He ‘put Juan Williams in his place.’ These little words and phrases that he used – calling President Obama a ‘food stamp president’ – these are things that were reminiscent of the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon and the ‘welfare queen’ created by Ronald Reagan. He understands all of that. He played into it very well and did a masterful job of connecting with the Republican voter.”
In addition to what Clyburn argued were Gingrich’s use of race as a wedge issue and his criticism of the news media, the No. 3 House Democrat also contended that Gingrich won in part due to Romney’s inability to “come clean with the American people, at least in their minds, as to who exactly and what he is.”
“His answers to questions seem to be filibusters,” Clyburn said of Romney. “He would never talk about that 15 percent tax rate in a way that people could identify with it. He would never talk about his relationship with Bain and what it did to Georgetown and Gaffney, two outstanding communities here where jobs were lost. And people just didn’t feel him.”
This week, all eyes will be on the Capitol when Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Clyburn – who sat next to House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) last time – said Sunday that he has not yet made any plans to sit with a Republican counterpart this time around.
“Well, I’m not making any plans to do so, though I would not be opposed to doing that,” Clyburn said. “Jeb and I are very friendly toward each other. Remember we sat in the same room with each other for several weeks as members of the so-called supercommittee. ... All of that style is good, but there is no substitute for substance. I will always go for substance over style.”
On the upcoming payroll tax fight on Capitol Hill, Clyburn said Sunday that Democrats are looking to the overseas contingency account – the savings from the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – as one potential pay-for.
Democrats are likely to face stiff opposition from Republicans on that front, however, since many GOP lawmakers have made it clear over the past year that they view the use of “war savings” as a budgetary gimmick.
He also predicted that Democrat Susan Bonamici will prevail over Republican Rob Cornilles in the Jan. 31 special House election in Oregon, and said that he expects Democrats will re-capture the House in November and that current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will return to her former spot as speaker.
“I think she is acquitting herself amiably in the position she is currently in,” Clyburn said of Pelosi. “I think she is articulating the vision for the country that the president is laying out in a way that’s helpful to the president. And I do believe she will be speaker next January.”
Clyburn – who is 71 and has served in the House for nearly two decades – declined to speculate about his own political future.
“By the same token, I don’t know what the future holds for me,” he said. “I am very pleased to be in the leadership of the party. ... Whatever the future holds, I hope to be prepared to receive it.”
Watch his full Newsmakers interview by clicking here.