South Carolina debate: Can 'janitor' comments spark Newt Gingrich comeback?

The South Carolina debate Monday included a standing ovation for Newt Gingrich when he took on moderator Juan Williams over race. Outside the confines of a conservative audience, however, Gingrich's comments could be more controversial. 

Matt Rourke/AP
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks with members of the media after a Republican presidential debate at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center Monday in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was aglow Tuesday after a racially charged exchange won him a standing ovation – and perhaps a new lease on his fading presidential hopes – at Monday’s GOP debate.

"We've done 15 debates and never seen anything like it," Mr. Gingrich said on Fox News Tuesday morning. "I frankly was very pleased, but also more than surprised. I think everybody was surprised by it." 

The night before, Gingrich had gone toe-to-toe, rhetorically, with liberal Fox debate moderator Juan Williams over the former speaker’s calls for black Americans to demand jobs, not food stamps, and for poor children to learn the value of work by performing janitorial duties in their schools.

“Can't you see that this is viewed at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?” Mr. Williams, who is African American, asked Gingrich.

“No, I don't see that,” the former speaker shot back icily. The house erupted, as audience members stood.

Gingrich’s own daughter, he said, had earned money doing janitorial work when she was 13.

“You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out,” Gingrich said. “They would actually have money in their pocket. They'd learn to show up for work.”

“Only the elites despise earning money,” he asserted.

Williams fought back. He said people of all races have been asking if Gingrich’s comments are “intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities.”

“You saw some of this during your visit to a black church in South Carolina, where a woman asked you why you refer to President Obama as the food-stamp president,” Williams said. “It sounds as if you're seeking to belittle people.”

Gingrich replied by saying that Mr. Obama has put more people on food stamps than any president in American history. “Now, I know among the politically correct you're not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable,” he said.

Some people see Gingrich’s regular references to Obama as the “food stamp president” as racially tinged, given that the president is African American and minorities receive food stamps disproportionately to the population as a whole.

"So here's my point," Gingrich finished. "I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn someday to own the job."

Gingrich won the moment. But how the exchange plays out in the long run – especially for the Republican Party – remains an open question. The GOP has been walking on egg shells over race for decades.

African Americans vote Democratic by an overwhelming margin, and even if making inroads into the black vote isn’t on the GOP radar for November, Republicans know that fostering an image of racial tolerance among independent suburban voters is important to their hopes of retaking the White House.

Jon Ward, a reporter for Huffington Post who attended the Myrtle Beach, S.C., debate, summarized the Gingrich-Williams exchange:

“It was a moment that will likely be dissected, debated, and discussed for some time: a black journalist being booed by an overwhelmingly white audience in a deep South state on Martin Luther King Day, as a white candidate for president talked about the work ethic in low-income, majority black neighborhoods. It's hard to imagine a more charged few minutes in public life in recent memory.”

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