The Racial Tone of Campaign 2012 May Be the New Normal

Tom Edsall is explicit today about the Romney campaign’s effort to make this year’s election into one that hinges on race:

The Republican ticket is flooding the airwaves with commercials that develop two themes designed to turn the presidential contest into a racially freighted resource competition pitting middle class white voters against the minority poor.

Ads that accuse President Obama of gutting the work requirements enacted in the 1996 welfare reform legislation present the first theme….Sharp criticism has done nothing to hold back the Romney campaign from continuing its offensive — in speeches and on the air — because the accuracy of the ads is irrelevant as far as the Republican presidential ticket is concerned. The goal is not to make a legitimate critique, but to portray Obama as willing to give the “undeserving” poor government handouts at the expense of hardworking taxpayers.

….The racial overtones of Romney’s welfare ads are relatively explicit. Romney’s Medicare ads are a bit more subtle….In essence, the ad is telling senior voters that the money they paid to insure their own access to Medicare after they turn 65 is going, instead, to pay for free health care for poor people who are younger than 65.

….The Romney campaign is willing to disregard criticism concerning accuracy and veracity in favor of “blowing the dog whistle of racism” — resorting to a campaign appealing to racial symbols, images and issues in its bid to break the frustratingly persistent Obama lead in the polls, which has lasted for the past 10 months.

Why is Romney doing this? I think the answer is largely that he learned a lesson from 2008. John McCain, to his credit, really did insist that his campaign avoid anything that smacked of racial dog whistling. And he lost big. Romney, I think, has decided that McCain was intimidated by the Obama campaign, and he’s not going to let the same thing happen to him. So he’s going to skate as close to the race line as he can while still retaining at least a smidgen of deniability about what he’s doing.

This, by the way, is the background behind Romney’s birther “joke” a few days ago. Under other circumstances, it might have been shrugged off. But Romney’s appeals to racial animus have been so obvious in other contexts that it’s pretty hard to watch the video and decide that this was truly an off-the-cuff remark that went awry. Go ahead and watch yourself and see what you think.

Of course, the real danger here is that this kind of thing may become the new normal. Obviously racially-coded attacks are especially effective when you’re running against a black incumbent, but the truth is that the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming ever more split along racial lines regardless of who’s running. As this split becomes more pronounced, Democratic appeals to minorities will inevitably become more important to their fortunes while Republican appeals to white resentment will become more important to theirs. In policy terms, this will mean things like voter ID laws and increasing resistance to immigration reform of all kinds. In campaign terms, it will mean ads about gutting welfare reform and giving your Medicare dollars to people who “aren’t you.” Welcome to 2016.

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