Are Romney’s welfare ads racist?

A little bit softer now…

God damn, Mitt Romney knows how to wear a suit. It’s because he’s rich; put him in jeans and he looks like he lost his luggage. Back before we knew about his Olympic horse and 13% tax rate, he tried to downplay the fact that he made enough money in 2010 to buy 100 houses. Now he’s going with it. The Republican candidate for president is one Thurston Howell micky-ficky, and you should vote for him because you have money, too. Even if you don’t, you would rather act like you did. That’s why the Romney campaign released this commercial:


Almost nothing in that ad is true, by the way. PolitiFact called it “a drastic distortion” of actual HHS policy—an accusation that prompted one Romney operative to declare that “we won’t let this campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” Thank god. I think we can all agree that fact-checkers have too much power in contemporary politics. To this home truth Thomas Edsall adds the claim that the Romney campaign is fundamentally racial.

Edsall makes a compelling statistical argument that the Republican Party needs white votes, and Romney’s plan to squeeze welfare and protect Medicare—albeit primarily for people who are old now—certainly fits that agenda. From a certain perspective, the rhetoric of this commercial does, too:


Describing Obamacare as “a massive new government program that’s not for you” sure sounds like a dog whistle of one kind or another. It’s also true that the currently uninsured Americans helped most by the Affordable Care Act are more likely to be black or hispanic than are current Medicare recipients, who are disproportionately white. If you are just getting to know America, it is often safe to use “poor” as a synonym for “black” and “old” for “white.” Also, the principal media consultant for Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC, is the same guy who produced the infamous Willie Horton ad for George Bush.

I don’t think that’s what these two Romney ads are up to, though. With the exception of the president, everyone who appears in them is white, so any coded racial analogs have to happen at the level of language. The specter of welfare free-riders and the phrase “not for you” evokes 1990s political ciphers for black and white, but in 2012 the Romney campaign is more sophisticated than that. Yes, white men are much more likely vote Romney than are anybody else. But that’s because the signal duality of this election is doing okay versus in trouble.

Thus far, the Romney campaign has run on two contentions: (1) lots of people are unemployed and/or broke, and (2) it’s their fault America sucks. It’s like arguing that the reason for the polio epidemic was all those kids got sick—true, yes, but kind of heartless. In order to attack Obama, Romney has to remind everyone that unemployment is way too high. But in order to hew to the conservative orthodoxy that presently defines his party, he also has to insist that we not do anything about it. All those poor people are a problem, and they wouldn’t be if the damn government stopped helping them.

That message works provided that the person who hears it does not think of himself as poor. Since 2009, the whole Republican message has been that America should double down on the Americans who are doing okay, and the ones who are in trouble will either join them or cease to exist. By implying that there could even be a “massive new government program” that is somehow “not for you,” Romney simultaneously argues that the country is in trouble and that we should abandon our obligation to fix it. When you stop thinking of the unemployed as “you,” the problem goes away.

So I don’t think that these Romney ads are a call to return to the racial politics of the early nineties. I think they’re a call to abandon compassion, like much of the rest of the present Republican platform. Two messages have emerged from the Romney campaign: thousands of Americans are struggling to make ends meet, and we must keep them from dragging us down. We must stop their efforts to take money from those who have retired from work and give it to the unemployed. We must shut down the massive new government program that is not for you so we can perpetuate the massive old government program that is. These ads are a rallying cry to selfishness, and they bet heavily that there are more of you than there are of them.

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  1. You’re on a roll, Dan. I’ve really enjoyed reading your takes on things in this unprecedentedly contentious political season.

  2. Obama actually talks TO the unemployed. Romney can only talk ABOUT them. Could be interesting to watch that difference in the debates.

  3. “So I don’t think that these Romney ads are a call to return to the racial politics of the early nineties. I think they’re a call to abandon compassion, like much of the rest of the present Republican platform. ”

    Spot on analysis, but don’t discount the dogwhistle racism. It’s always fun to play Spot the Minority in Romney’s ads, but the Romney welfare ad takes the game to a new level. They must have filmed that one in the whitest factory in America.

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