There are two toxic possibilities for the fall campaign focused on two aspects of each candidate's life. The first is race; the second is Mormonism. Romney has now firmly grasped the race weapon, while I doubt very much that Obama will touch the LDS church. That shows you who's still got the edge at the moment: Obama. I try not to jump to conclusions about racial appeals – but the two-pronged campaign assault by Romney, on Medicare and welfare, does not rise to the level, in my view, of plausible deniability.
The key to both is the classic notion that unworthy blacks are taking from worthy whites. And so the Medicare ad uses white old faces expressing shock at the notion that Obama would transfer money from their retirement healthcare for health insurance for those without, i.e. the poor, who tend to be more minority than the rich. It's basically a lie – Ryan would cut the same from Medicare as Obama would, and there is no direct quid pro quo between the two policies. It's also dishonest: Ryan and Romney are promising to cut Medicare spending and yet are running against Obama for doing exactly that.
Then there's the simple bald lie that Obama is allowing welfare recipients to escape work requirements. I don't remember a campaign in my lifetime which based an entire line of attack on a total fabrication, in fact a reverse of the truth. The welfare waivers are designed exclusively to experiment with how to increase the effectiveness of the work requirement for welfare, and waivers have been granted to Republican governors as well. And yet we get this from the Romney campaign:
"Our most effective ad is our welfare ad," a top television advertising strategist for Romney, Ashley O'Connor, said at a forum Tuesday hosted by ABCNews and Yahoo! News. "It's new information."
It's not. It's new disinformation. It's Orwellian propaganda. Chris Matthews was righteously indignant yesterday about the revival of Atwaterism – but the real scandal is that a major campaign is running a race-baiting ad based on nothing. And it's their most effective.
The subtext to this is pretty obvious. James Bennet notes the following unguarded aside by Karl Rove to the Washington elite's stenographer, Mike Allen. Rove was unsurprisingly comfortable enough to say the following about a chat with Mitch Daniels:
And I said, 'Mitch, is there a white Democrat south of Indianapolis who's supporting Obama who's not a college professor in Bloomington?' [Laughter] And he stopped for a minute over his green beans and says, 'Not that I can think of.'
You know, Indiana's gone.
The simple assumption of racial politics as the driver of campaigns is what's striking. Karl Rove became what he is – a persistent whitehead on the face of American politics – because he learned the art of race-baiting politics in the South. Romney – having given up on Latinos and blacks and gays – is now betting the bank on the white resentment that has been fast losing potency since the 1990s. Which is where Bill Clinton comes in. He is used in that ad. His speech at the DNC should take on this lie aggressively, call Romney personally on it, and demand that the lie end. No one has more cred on this than Clinton. He should punch hard.
In many ways, this is the biggest moment in Bill Clinton's post-presidential life. Killing racial wedge politics would be a fitting finale to his life's work on that subject.
(Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty.)