On Monday night, the five remaining Republican presidential candidates debated in South Carolina. The two-hour event, broadcast on Fox News and held at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, covered a broad range of topics, but with its overlap on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the conversation repeatedly turned to invocations of Dr. King's legacy and the African-American community. In between lively responses from the crowd (vigorous boos at moderator Juan Williams' suggestion that some of Newt Gingrich's past comments were offensive to black people, thunderous applause at abstinence education) the candidates made their cases for what they think is best. Here are some of their insights:
1. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney Spar on Ex-Felon Voting Rights
Responding to a question about the nastiness of attacks in the race, Santorum confronted Romney about a pro-Romney Super PAC that is airing an attack ad that falsely claims Santorum supports allowing felons in prison to vote. After explaining his actual view — that people who have served their prison time and completed their probation and parole, should have their right to vote restored — he pressed Romney to give his position on the matter:
Should felons who have served their time, who've gone through probation and parole, and exhausted their entire sentence, should they be given the right to have a vote? This is Martin Luther King Day. This is a huge deal in the African-American community because we have very high rates of incarceration, disproportionately higher rates, particularly with drug crimes in the African-American community. The bill I voted on is the Martin Luther King voting rights bill. And this was a provision that … particularly targeted African Americans. And I voted to allow them to have their voting rights back once they completed their sentence.
After much hedging, Romney finally answered: "I don't think people who have committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote again." Santorum pounced, pointing out that while Romney was governor of Massachusetts the state policy was to allow violent felons to not only vote after they'd completed their sentences, but also while they were on probation and parole.
2. Rick Perry Stands Up for South Carolina's Voter ID Law
Williams asked Perry about his position against the Department of Justice's challenge to South Carolina's photo ID law: "Gov. Perry, are you suggesting on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day that the federal government has no business scrutinizing the voting laws of states where minorities were once denied the right to vote?" Perry answered that the Obama administration has gone too far:
I'm saying that the state of Texas is under assault by federal government. I'm saying also that South Carolina is at war with this administration. When you look at what this Justice Department has done, not only have they taken them to task on voter ID, they've also taken them to task on their immigration law, and in the most egregious thing, obviously, is this National Labor Relations Board where they've come in to a right-to-work state and told the state of South Carolina, "We’re not going to let a private company come in here," that is irresponsible. I will suggest to you that it's unconstitutional. And when I'm the president of the United States, the states are going to have substantially more rights to take care of their business, and not be forced by the EPA or by the Justice Department, for that matter, to do things that are against the will of the people.
3. Gingrich Says the Unemployed Must Help Themselves
On the topic of "99ers" — people who have been out of work long enough to exhaust all unemployment benefits — Gingrich was asked what he thinks is the maximum length that people should be allowed to collect unemployment checks. Gingrich responded by reframing the discussion, not-so-subtly suggesting that people on unemployment benefits don't want to work:
All unemployment compensation should be tied to a job training requirement. If somebody can't find a job, and they show up and say, "You know, I need help," the help we ought to give them is to get them connected to a business-run training program to acquire the skills to be employable. The fact is, 99 weeks is an associate's degree. It tells you everything you need to know about the difference between Barack Obama and the five of us — we actually think work is good. We actually think saying to somebody, "I'll help you if you're willing to help yourself" is good, and we think unconditional efforts by the best food stamp president in American history to maximize dependency is terrible for the future of this country.
4. Santorum's Solution for Poverty
Williams posed a question about whether special steps should be taken to deal with African-American poverty, given that it's double the national rate. Santorum said that poverty, including that of black Americans, can be remedied by three things:
If you look at a study that was done by the Brookings Institute back in 2009, they determined that if Americans do three things they can avoid poverty. Work, graduate from high school and get married before you have children. (Pause for applause and cheering from the audience.) Those three things, if you do according to Brookings, results in only 2 percent of people who do all those things ending up in poverty, and 77 percent above the national average in income. It's a huge, huge opportunity for us.
But what is the Obama administration doing? Elayne Bennett, the wife of Bill Bennett, runs a program called Best Friends … This is a program targeted at at-risk youth, specifically in many cases in the African-American community who are at-risk young girls. The Obama administration now has regulations that tell them that they can no longer promote marriage as a way of avoiding poverty and bad choices that they make in their life. They can no longer even teach abstinence education; they have to be neutral with respect to how people behave. The problem is, neutrality ends in poverty. Neutrality ends in choices that hurt people's lives. This administration is deliberately telling organizations that are there to help young girls make good choices, not to tell them what the good choice is.
5. Gingrich Doubles Down on Poor-Kids-as-Janitors Plan and "Food Stamp President"
Williams (again) questioned Gingrich about racial remarks he's made on the campaign trail — that black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps, and that poor kids lack a strong work ethic and should possibly work as janitors at their schools. "Can't you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?" Williams asked. Gingrich said, "No, I don't see it." Once the thunderous applause died down, he defended his plan for poor kids.
New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. 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 will be a lot less likely to drop out, they will actually have money in their pocket, they'd learn to show up for work. They can do light janitorial duty, they can work in the cafeteria, they can work in the front office, they can work in the library. They'd be getting money, which is a good thing if you're poor. Only the elites despise earning money.
Gingrich also defended his characterization of President Obama, holding the president responsible for the historic number of Americans on food stamps. "The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than by any president in American history."