DANA MILBANK

Gingrich colors in GOP caricature

Posted Jan. 26, 2012, at 5:31 p.m.

The most important figure in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address wasn’t on the House floor. In fact, he hasn’t taken a seat in front of the chamber in 13 years.

But as he campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination in Florida, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was doing more to boost President Obama’s re-election prospects than anything Obama himself could do. While Obama was using the speech to portray the Republicans as plutocrats, Gingrich was doing all he could to prove the caricature true.

Obama’s address, the unofficial start of his campaign, aimed to take the economic misery that threatens his re-election and turn it into class resentment.

“Washington should stop subsidizing millionaires,” Obama told the lawmakers, renewing his vow to raise taxes only on the 2 percent of American families with income above $250,000 a year. “Because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households.”

In the first lady’s box, above the lawmakers, was a populist plant: Debbie Bosanek, Warren Buffett’s secretary, who, the investor said, pays a higher tax rate than he does.

“Now, you can call this class warfare all you want,” Obama dared the Republicans. “But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”

Obama’s speech was flat: applause, even from the Democratic side, was lighter than usual. Several lawmakers tended to their telephones, and a few, including Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., appeared to be struggling to stay awake. But if Obama’s message of economic resentment didn’t rile the crowd, it didn’t matter: Gingrich was making the case for him.

On the very day Obama gave his call to class warfare, the former speaker, whose allies had already branded Mitt Romney a job-destroying “predatory capitalist,” successfully goaded the former Massachusetts governor into releasing tax returns that reveal him to be making millions of dollars per year from investments and paying paltry tax rates — while tucking money in the Cayman Islands, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock and a Swiss bank account. Gingrich exulted Tuesday that the already rich Romney is “getting richer off of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

Romney, suddenly faltering in his bid for the nomination, found himself declaring in Florida on Tuesday that “banks aren’t bad people.” He continued to characterize Gingrich as an “influence peddler,” a tool of K Street and an exorbitantly compensated Freddie Mac lobbyist. Gingrich’s campaign, in turn, answered with the implausible claim that it can’t find all of the lucrative contracts the candidate had with Freddie. (Did they look under the sofa cushions?)

Obama strategist David Axelrod couldn’t have arranged it better: Republicans helpfully turned themselves into fat-cat foils for Obama, staging all-out war between the Gingrich haves and the Romney have-mores.

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows the damage done. Two weeks ago, Romney was viewed favorably by 39 percent of Americans and unfavorably by 34 percent. Incredibly, he is now viewed favorably by only 31 percent and unfavorably by 49 percent.

Gingrich himself remains so unpopular that his own chances of beating Obama seem dim: His 29 percent favorability rating is about where it was before he was dumped as speaker by his House colleagues in 1998. But by making Romney as unpopular as he is, he has made Obama look good by comparison. Obama’s favorable rating is up to 53 percent from 48 percent in December.

Gingrich has long regarded himself as a “transformational figure” in world history, and now he’s about to prove it: For the second time in his career, he is about to save the re-election bid of a foundering Democratic president.

Obama certainly needs the help, if his uninspiring speech is any indication. Unable to muster sustained applause through the hour, he managed to unite the chamber in groans when he made a joke about government dairy regulations: “I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.”

Even Obama’s digs at the Republicans produced little beyond a few grumbles from hotheads such as Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. Even lines plainly designed to stoke outrage were met mostly with quiet in the still chamber.

It was an uninspiring speech delivered with dismal result. But, then again, it wasn’t necessary for Obama to foment economic resentment. Gingrich is taking care of that.

Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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