Midnight Basketball, 2012 Version

Yesterday, Newt Gingrich got asked on Meet the Press if there were any racial undertones to his recent statement that Barack Obama is a "food-stamp president." Newt reacted with outrage. "Oh come on, David," he said. "That's bizarre." He did go on, however, to say that Obama "follows the same destructive political model that destroyed the city of Detroit. Now tell me, when I say, "Detroit," what kind of people pop into your head? Adam gets Newt's method exactly right:

I don't think Gingrich lacks the sophistication to understand how it sounds when he calls for poll tests and refers to the first black president as "the food stamp president." He's playing a game designed to produce precisely the sort of exchange you see above: Gingrich says something bound to prick up the ears of liberals sensitive to racialized attacks on the president, Gingrich is then asked about his remarks, then he gets to play the victim of a politically correct world where liberals try to stifle all criticism of Obama by characterizing any such criticism as racism. His dogwhistle is thus amplified by enraged liberals, while conservatives get to play up their own form of racial grievance politics.

This is old hat for Gingrich. You may remember that in 1994, Bill Clinton proposed a large crime bill with many features in it, including money to hire 100,000 new police officers. But when Gingrich mounted his campaign against it, he focused on one tiny element: "midnight basketball," something that actually began under the George H.W. Bush administration, to give kids at risk of joining gangs something else to do. Midnight basketball, Gingrich argued relentlessly, told you everything you needed to know about Clinton's plans to give your hard-earned money to people who didn't deserve it. "Midnight basketball" became the "welfare queens" of the 1990s.

To repeat something I've said before, what he did when he was in Congress and what he's doing now doesn't make Newt a racist. What's in his heart is unknowable and irrelevant. But he knows how to pick at the scab of racial resentment with the best of them.