Romney Campaign Mutes the Racial Dog Whistles for Tampa

Mitt Romney delivered a good acceptance speech that will help him in the polls. But it won’t fundamentally change the contours of his campaign, which now depends on compensating for his deficits with women and Hispanics by maximizing the white working-class male vote.

This means emitting a series of “dog whistles” -- carefully coded messages heard only by anxious white voters inclined to think President Barack Obama is too easy on minorities.

Neither Romney nor his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, went heavy on dog whistles in their speeches this week. The Republican National Convention was devoted to softening Romney’s image and too much racial subtext would have gone over badly.

But both men did assert that Obama was raiding Medicare to pay for Obamacare, a coded way of telling senior citizens that the president was taking their benefits and giving them to poor (read black) uninsured people.

This is entirely untrue. Obama’s plan doesn’t cut any basic Medicare benefits and, in fact, reduces prescription-drug costs for senior citizens.

Welfare Myth

Meanwhile, a welfare dog whistle continues to account for half of Romney’s paid advertising against Obama. A Romney ad in heavy rotation says that under a recent welfare-policy change “they just send you your welfare check.” That’s false, but it successfully conjures unemployed people sitting on the couch mooching off the middle class.

Contrary to the claims of some Democrats, there was no explicit racist tone at the convention in Tampa, Florida. When a black CNN camerawoman was pelted with nuts by two white convention goers who said, “this is how we feed the animals,” it was an isolated incident. Green, not black, is the color that most interested the well-heeled delegates.

Even so, I was troubled to find delegates -- including one with close ties to Romney -- who actually believe that Obama should disclose his Occidental College transcript to prove that he deserved to be admitted to Columbia University as a transfer student in 1981. This was a sign that even as the so-called birthers have been relegated to the fringe, many Republicans still disrespect Obama in ways that they might not if he were white. Dare I say the same might go for Clint Eastwood?

In employing dog whistles, the Romney campaign is tapping into racial themes that Republicans have used going back to 1968, when Richard Nixon inaugurated his infamous “Southern strategy.”

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as race riots in 1967 and 1968, Nixon, who viewed politics as “the mobilization of resentments,” used a law-and-order theme to appeal directly to white anxieties over school busing and other extensions of the civil-rights movement.

Embraced by a generation of Republican candidates, the strategy turned the solidly Democratic South solidly Republican. But it had plenty of appeal in the North, too, especially when the argument pitted hard-working middle-class whites against minorities receiving government assistance.

Ronald Reagan’s code words included “welfare queens” and strapping “young bucks” on food stamps. Newt Gingrich this year took to calling Obama “the food-stamp president.”

The presence of a black man in the White House complicates the introduction of racial themes, which is why Romney didn’t adopt this strategy until he fell behind over the summer.

Willie Horton

Romney’s communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom, told me in Tampa that there was no racial component to the campaign, “nothing like the furlough ads.” This was a reference to the infamous “Willie Horton” ads made on behalf of George H.W. Bush against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988. The ads used scary images of a black inmate released under a Massachusetts furlough program who went on to kill a woman.

Fehrnstrom was arguing that anything short of explicit racial imagery was in bounds, even if untrue. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster, said after both the Medicare and welfare attacks were exposed as false.

A century ago, a black boxer named Jack Johnson was heavyweight champion of the world. As chronicled in the play and movie, “The Great White Hope” (and in the book “Unforgivable Blackness,” by Geoffrey C. Ward), the white world was determined to dethrone Johnson by any means necessary.

Obama doesn’t have character weaknesses that can be exploited. He makes a small target, which is frustrating for Republicans. His failures on the economy might not be enough to get Romney over the finish line. So after the glow of their convention wears off, Republicans will probably be back on the same low road they have traveled in the past.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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