by Paul Waldman
Mitt Romney, you’ll be glad to know, does not actually believe that Barack Obama isn’t an American. Sure, he might joke about birth certificates and say, “I just don’t think that President Obama understands America,” but he knows where Obama was born. In the same way, Romney may charge falsely that Obama has “gutted” welfare reform and eliminated work requirements from the program, then have his campaign produce multiple ads repeating this lie, essentially telling voters that Obama is taking money from hard-working people like you and sending it to shiftless welfare recipients. And sure, the Republican Party has a long history of racially coded attacks that use issues like welfare and crime to tell white voters that Democrats are the party of undeserving blacks. And sure, these latest ads fit seamlessly into that history like a train car slotting into its track. But Mitt Romney personally doesn’t hate people on the basis of their race. So what’s the harm?
Well Mitt, here’s the answer. Voters have to judge candidates not by what they claim to believe but by what they do. Saying you aren’t a birther isn’t an excuse for birther-baiting, just as saying you aren’t a racist isn’t an excuse for race-baiting. And Mitt Romney is baiting with all his might.
The Republican base eats up lines about Obama’s birth certificate and about him being foreign, as Romney knows well. He also knows about the rancid tide of race-baiting that conservative media figures have drowned their fans in over the last four years, from Glenn Beck charging that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred of white people” to Rush Limbaugh telling his listeners that Obama’s administration is all about delivering “payback” to “white Europeans” (Google “Obamacare” and “reparations” if you want to see where conservatives are coming from on this).
Nevertheless, Romney could have left the racially-coded attacks aside and waged his campaign on different ground. Instead, he picked up that twisted, burning baton handed by Nixon (with his “Southern strategy”) to Reagan (with his “welfare queens”) and then to Bush the father (with Willie Horton), and then to Newt Gingrich (with “midnight basketball” and Obama the “food stamp president”), and along the way to so many other Republicans at every level, and decided see if he can carry it to the finish line before it eats through his soul.
The only way to get Romney to stop would be for the media to call him out clearly enough that the costs of the strategy started to outweigh the benefits. But that’s not likely to happen, because most of the media doesn’t know how to talk about this. They all know what Romney is doing, but they also know that even the suggestion that Romney is race-baiting will be met by conservatives with faux-outrage and accusations that the “liberal media” has it in for the Republican candidate. There’s just enough vagueness in what Romney says to afford him deniability. So long as Republicans stay unified in denying that any thought of appealing to racist impulses ever crossed their minds, they’ll have the conventions of “objective” journalism on their side. Those conventions dictate that whenever there’s a disagreement, both sides are equally valid. So Democrats will say Romney is race-baiting, and Republicans will say the real racism is false accusations of race-baiting like this one. Obama himself—always conscious that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic recently wrote, “acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black”—will hesitate to call Romney’s strategy what it is. Since coverage is driven above all by what the candidates themselves choose to emphasize, that reticence will help keep the question of race off the front page, leaving it to people who are allowed to express their opinions (like Chris Matthews) to speak the truth, while Romney is free to hammer away with his television ads.
In the absence of a media push-back, the only thing that might stop him is his own conscience. Which is to say—if the campaign thus far is any indication—not much at all.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.