Romney Campaign's Race-Baiting Strategy Could Have Dire Consequences for America

The Romney campaign got the memo: Race-baiting and xenophobia work -- at least among the segment of the electorate former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney hopes to capture in his quest for the presidency.

Over the course of the last two weeks, Romney's strategy has incorporated racial and cultural cues, both subtle and blatant, as a means of deflection from the Obama campaign's relentless offensive based on questions about Romney's tenure at Bain Capital, from which Romney claims to have been retired during a period of time, 1999-2002, in which his name is listed on documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission as the sole owner and chief executive officer of the firm.

Add those questions -- what was Bain doing at that time, and why does Romney want deniability for those actions? -- to Romney's refusal to release more than his last two years of tax returns, and you've got a pretty shady-looking candidate.

Furthermore, Romney, an elite member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has suffered difficulties from the start among elements of the Republican base, especially right-wing Christian evangelicals, who view Mormonism as a cult and doubt Romney's conservative bona fides, especially on abortion, given the fact that he was, at one time, pro-choice.

Race trumps religion

Searching for a theme that would unify the base of the Republican Party, the Romney camp sought to find its footing in voter sentiment verified this week in a Washington Post/ABC News poll: Race-based reservations about Obama trump religion-based reservations about Romney. (It's not unlikely that the Romney campaign's internal polling revealed much the same information.) In short, the theme boiled down to this: remind those core voters that the stakes in this election include another four years with a black guy in the White House -- and you know what those people are like.

The poll, conducted by Langer Research, found that among the non-black adults it surveyed, 62 percent "think blacks in their community don’t experience racial discrimination (a view at odds with what 

most blacks themselves report)," according to Langer's release (PDF). 

When the registered voters in that group of people who think African-Americans have an equal shot at success, at least in the respondents' hometowns, 59 percent expressed a preference for Romney in the presidential race. Move the needle up a couple of points on that number, and Romney could have a winning margin. 

Meanwhile, non-black registered voters who think blacks do experience discrimination in the respondents' own communities were far more likely to name Obama as their candidate, 56-37 percent. 

While the same survey reveals some discomfort in the electorate with Romney's faith, it's a less influential factor in most voters' decision-making than race, according to the ABC News poll. From the Langer Research release (PDF):

Thirty-one percent of non-Mormon Americans express an unfavorable view of Mormonism, while 38 percent see it favorably (the rest have no opinion). Romney has 54 percent support among registered voters in the positive group, vs. 42 percent among those who see Mormonism negatively, a 12-point gap.

Casting Obama as "other"

Among Christian evangelicals, however, the discomfort with Mormonism is more pronounced, with only 62 percent of that population saying they'd be comfortable with a close relative marrying a Mormon, compared with 78 percent of other adults. But the poll showed that racial attitudes play a stronger role in determining a voter's preferred candidate.

And so, as the Romney campaign sought to portray the president as not understanding the fundamentals of private enterprise (and insulting the notion of businessman as hero-figure whose success stems solely from his own brains, sweat and initiative), the campaign also launched an attack designed to remind voters that the president is black -- as is a sizable contingent of people who support him. 

Romney's most recent spate of race plays began with his visit to the NAACP convention, where he dangled some bait in front of an almost all-black audience that had, up until that point, received him politely. He had to know that trotting out his "promise to repeal Obamacare" line would generate a negative response, and the audience delivered with a chorus of boos -- just as he had to know that his right-wing base would love to watch that video clip on instant replay. And when he patronizingly asserted himself as the best candidate "for African American families," Romney was clearly playing to the the white Republican base, whose leaders often express purported knowledge of what's best for black people.

His intention became clear when, later that day, Romney referred to the disapproval aimed his way at the NAACP event. "I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy -- more free stuff," Romney said, according to a pool report. "But don't forget nothing is really free."

Given the racial context of the remark, it was, at best, insensitive. At worst, it was eerily reminiscent of Newt Gingrich's gambit in the South Carolina primary, when the former House speaker dubbed Obama the "food stamp president."

In their poll for ABC News, Langer found that 19 percent of non-black respondents said they did not believe that blacks "tried as hard as people of other races to get ahead." Of that group, 44 percent of registered voters broke for Romney, compared with 34 percent for Obama.

As Romney collected right-wing kudos for his NAACP appearance, the Obama campaign continued the drumbeat on the outsourcing of jobs by Romney's firm, Bain Capital, with a spokesperson suggesting that Romney may have committed a felony by signing those SEC documents as Bain's CEO, if, indeed, he had already retired from the company, as he now claims.

"Foreign" policy

Enter John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor and chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, who, acting as a Romney surrogate, quickly put an end to any speculation that that the racializing of Obama by the Romney camp was anything but a premeditated strategy. 

While the focus moved from Obama as a favorite of African-Americans to Obama as something other than a genuine American, the metadynamic created is one in which the word "other" is the operative term. When Tea Partiers lionize the founders, they see themselves as the descendants of the men who framed the Constitution. They do not see black people as such. They do not see "foreigners" as such. Hence, neither "foreigners" or blacks, in this reading, are genuine Americans. A black guy with a Kenyan father who attended elementary school for a time in Indonesia ranks, among that constituency, as an "other" with a triple-whammy.

In three separate interviews on Tuesday, July 17, Sununu asserted that Obama was somehow foreign, having been partly raised in Indonesia, and then in Hawaii, where Sununu characterized him as "smoking something." (History be damned: Hawaii, apparently, doesn't qualify as an American state in the United States of Sununu.) On a press call with reporters, Sununu boiled his message down to this: "I wish this president would learn how to be an American."

Romney himself followed up a few hours later, characterizing his own vision as "Celebrating success instead of attacking it and denigrating making America strong." He continued: "That’s the right course for the country. [Obama's] course is extraordinarily foreign."

Media #fail on racism coverage

Perhaps the most distressing thing about this use of prejudice by the Romney campaign is the subdued media response to it. The Sununu remarks were news for a day. Then Sununu issued a half-assed apology for a tiny bit of what he said, and basically got away with all of it. Romney's allegations of the "foreignness" of Obama's "course" went virtually unchecked.

That portends a campaign season in which current racial tensions in American culture will be ratcheted up, all for the benefit of the ambitions of a very rich man who doesn't think Americans have a right to know how a potential president made his money. (Well, at least not if that potential president is him.)

It's craven. It's nasty. And in some ways, it's worse than the utterances of the late Georgia governor Lester Maddox or the late Alabama governor George Wallace, because of the built-in feature of plausible deniability.

On Wednesday, July 17, Mark Thompson, host of the SiriusXM radio show, Make It Plain, suggested that if Romney manages to win the White House by this strategy of othering Obama, the consequences for racial equality in America could be dire.

I was on the air with Mark at the time, doing our regular Wednesday breakdown of the previous week's politics. A caller named Dan dialed in to protest Mark's assertion. But when Mark tried to answer, the caller kept shouting over him, mischaracterizing Mark's remarks. Every time either one of us tried to speak, the guy shouted louder, the pitch of his voice inching higher on the scale in a whirl of hysteria.

It wasn't simply what he said that was distressing, it was the quality of his energy -- less harmful over the phone, perhaps, than, say, out on the street. But a few more people so emotionally bent over an examination of racism in America, given tacit permission to act out their paranoia, can wreak havoc.

Mark, by the way, is African-American.

After I left the air, another caller dialed in to tell Mark that he deserved to be shot, just like Trayvon Martin. While it would be wrong to hold Mitt Romney to account for that man's actions, it is fair to say that Romney is hard at work nurturing the resentments of racially prejudiced people, not all of whom are capable of keeping their behavior in check -- and he's doing it all for the purpose of hiding the provenance of his own money in his quest for the White House. 

It's a very old Southern strategy -- one that predates the Republican Party's transformation to the white people's party of today. Shame on Mitt Romney. 


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