Republican presidential challenger, Mitt Romney was given credit last week for refusing to endorse a proposed ad campaign that sought to link President Barack Obama with the controversial sermons delivered by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. In doing so, Romney appeared to be demonstrating the same streak of decency that wouldn't allow him to join in with the silly "birther" cabal, or the "Islamophobic" hysteria when these tendencies were all in vogue.
So far, so good. But before pinning any medals on Mitt Romney, it is important to note some worrisome signs indicating that he and his campaign may have opted for a more subtle approach to establishing the "otherness" of Barack Obama.
The more ham-fisted approach was used in 2008 by then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. It was both divisive and a failure. Beautifully cataloged by radio and TV personality, Bill Press, in his new book, The Obama Hate Machine, the GOP and their media echo chamber engaged in a multi-pronged assault against Obama in an effort to paint him as "radical," "foreign" and "different than the rest of us." He was "Muslim," "associated with terrorists," "of foreign birth;" a "Black militant," "not a loyal American," or a "Marxist" -- all of which Press termed "the 'othering' of candidate Obama."
Republicans failed to defeat Barack Obama in 2008. But their efforts did leave a deep residual mistrust of the President. For example, recent polls show that an average of 40 percent of Republican voters in Southern states do not believe that Obama was born in the United States (and is, therefore, ineligible to be president) and more than a quarter of all Republicans still believe that Obama is a Muslim.
There was also a more subtle approach to establishing the "otherness" of Obama, and it had its roots in the 2008 Democratic primary. A memo prepared back then by Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, Mark Penn, pointed out the "diverse multicultural background" of her opponent, suggesting that "it exposes a very strong weakness for him -- his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine Americans electing a president... who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and values."
Based on this assessment, Penn then asked, "How we could give some life to this contrast without turning negative?" And he answered his question with the following advice:
"Every speech should contain the line you were born in the middle of America... and talk about the... deeply American values you grew up with... Let's explicitly own 'American' in our programs, the speeches, and values. He doesn't. Make this a new American Century, etc... Let's add flag symbols to the backgrounds."
While candidate Clinton rejected this approach, her surrogates, at times, did not. In any case, this Penn memo proposing a more subtle "othering" of Obama appears now to have been picked up by team-Romney in 2012.
Earlier this week I received a mass fundraising mailer from the Romney campaign. It included a glossy full color photo of the candidate in wrinkled jeans and wind-breaker, standing in front of a weathered barn emblazoned with a massive American flag. Under the photo was written:
Thank you for believing in America as much as I do...this is a moment that demands we return to our basic values and core principles.
The fundraising letter that accompanied the photo featured, on just its first page, in only 15 lines of text, the words "America" and "American" 10 times. The letter began: "I believe in America... I believe in the American Dream. And I believe in American strength." And continued: "This election is a battle for the soul of America." It concluded by asserting that this campaign is "to reclaim America for the people."
While only a touch more subtle than the rejected "paint him with the Jeremiah Wright is a radical brush," the net effect of this Romney mailing is the same. In case you missed the point: Mitt Romney is the "real" American; he is the one who believes in "American values;" and he alone is fighting for the "soul of America."
And the subtext of the message, in case you missed that: Obama is different; he's not like "us;" his ideas are foreign; and he and his supporters believe in values that are un-American.
So while claiming to be the higher road, this GOP approach invites the same conclusion and opens the door to same bigotry that has for four years now tarnished our national discourse.
This election can be about many things. It can be about approaches to job-creation, or philosophies of governance, or character, or even qualities of leadership. But in a time of great national stress, faced, as we are, with a struggling economy and an unsettling and rapidly changing world, what this election debate should not be about are subtle or not so subtle digs calling into question the "patriotism" or "otherness" of the incumbent.