Jonathan Chait recently framed a conundrum facing Democrats who are convinced that the Romney campaign is playing the race card: you don't have to be racist to subscribe to conservative positions on spending for the poor, but such positions are attractive to those who envision the "undeserving poor" primarily as minorities. His conclusion: while Romney attack ads alleging that Obama is gutting the work requirements for welfare might not be racist if the charge had any basis in truth, the fact that it was concocted out of thin air points conclusively to a race-based appeal.
Chait is wary of Democrats overplaying the race card, and so asserts at the end that "the best counterattack against Romney’s welfare gambit is simply to point out that Romney is shamelessly lying." But he's threading a needle here, much like people who acknowledge that while a given hurricane can't be chalked up to global warming, an overall increase in hurricane intensity probably can. His personal conviction is delivered in the conditional:
There’s no question about whether the ads are accurate—they are not. The really tricky dispute centers on whether the ads are racist. The racial implications of the welfare smear have raised the moral stakes to a higher plane than the normal campaign fight, associating Romney with the darkest strains in American political history, and invoking the possibility that should his tactics succeed, many Americans would view his win as tainted.Quite so. And those moral stakes arouse intense anxiety and anger in those who see the race card face up. At moments I'm tempted to despair of American democracy when contemplating these ads, and the plutocrat dollars behind them, and the four-year stream of racially tinged bile emanating from Fox and Rush & co., and concerted Republican voter suppression drives, and pretty solid-looking research indicating that his race cost Obama 3-5 percentage points in 2008.
And yet, with breath held as the billion-dollar Romney air assault kicks into post-convention gear, I am also prepared to be proud. Step back and contemplate that in the face of 8-plus percent unemployment, and a united opposition that has sabotaged and demonized his every initiative for 44 months, Obama remains at least a slight favorite for reelection. Renewing our vows would be even more awe-inspiring than electing Obama in the first place.
In the euphoria of 2008, it was possible to think that racism was losing its potency, was not a major factor in our politics. After we lost that innocence, after four years of more and less racially coded attacks, from birtherism to Gingrich's food stamp president to Romney's subtler charge that Obama doesn't understand what makes America unique; after the death panel screams and the debt ceiling debacle;
Pundits moan no end about the stupidity of the electorate. Progressives worry, with reason, about the effects of unprecedented and unaccountable billions flowing into campaign coffers, and an equally unprecedented willingness to base a campaign entirely on lies. And yet, in the face of all, it appears more likely than not that the race-baiting, compromise-ditching, economy-sabotaging, government-gutting, corporate-controlled GOP is going to fail to fool most of the people enough of the time to unseat Obama.
If he prevails again, it will be America's finest hour since the Voting Rights Act.
Update/afterthought: reflecting on Anon's knocking out of one talking point above, and also on another fact I held in abeyance -- that most political scientists regard the fundamentals of this race as pointing toward a near dead heat, or slightly toward an incumbent victory: should Obama win, the "miracle," such as it is, would be that the normal fundamentals held despite any handicap imposed by race, and despite the infusion of an extra billion in outside money, and despite the ever-intensifying ideological fervor of the GOP -- though the latter, according to Silver's model, should actually work in Obama's favor. In fact, as with any event that happens in this world, there is no miracle -- but let's then say that the fundamentals of our democracy will have proved to be stronger than they looked. It's a bit solipsistic to say, "my side winning proves that democracy is working," but given the current extremism of the GOP I think it justified.