Mitt Romney's latest brush with a quotation requiring further explanation is really an act of political genius -- albeit, one of the cravenly cynical and despicable variety.
By standing in Jerusalem on Monday and declaring that Jews are richer than Palestinians because of their culture -- this, as he was asking wealthy Jews for money at a campaign fundraiser -- Romney effectively exploited the Israeli-Palestinian divide as cover to annunciate a racist notion that resonates with a key slice of the electorate at home: white voters.
"Culture makes all the difference," he reportedly told those gathered at the Jerusalem fundraiser. "And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things." (One wonders what those "few other things" might include -- skin color perhaps?)
Can we for a nanosecond imagine Romney at a country club in some posh Detroit suburb celebrating the innate superiority of the predominantly WASP crowd in attendance while using "culture" to explain the wealth gap with the predominantly African American inner city? Yet this is the very sentiment he catered to in Jerusalem. In essence, Romney said that whole races of people are better than others.
He said this, and yet he very carefully did not say it -- at least, not in an explicitly American context -- making sure to secure the plausible deniability that foreign soil conveys: He was discussing international affairs, not American life.
But he did say it, and the logic holds regardless of the context: If culture can explain success over there, than surely it can do the same here. And in saying it, he successfully pandered to voters who hold enormous influence over his fate.
Most directly, Romney spoke to Jews who are prone to anger toward President Barack Obama for his pursuit of a more balanced policy in the Middle East. He flattered them by casting Israel's economic success as a reflection of cultural traits that presumably extend beyond that nation's borders, encompassing the entirety of the Jewish people. He did not, for example, portray it as a reflection of the unbridled American aid and access to global markets that Israelis have enjoyed for decades, in contrast to Palestinians, who have struggled with isolation, limited economic opportunity and inadequate infrastructure in the face of extended occupation.
Speaking as a secular Jewish American who long ago tired of the "chosen people" talk at the Passover Seder, I am here to tell you that this sort of message will find takers, even among self-identified progressive Jews who speak in favor of Palestinian rights. Yes, Jews supported Obama by overwhelming margins four years ago, and that will almost surely happen again. Romney's pleading for Jewish votes will produce no groundswell. But that's irrelevant. If Romney manages to peel off even a minute fraction of Jewish votes in battleground states -- especially in Florida, land of irate Zionist grandparents -- that might be enough to tip the race.
Yet the brilliance of Romney's mislabeled "gaffe" goes beyond such narrow calculations. More broadly, it taps into a current of resentment among white voters, the core artery of support for Romney's candidacy. It injects the race card into a presidential contest against an incumbent who happens to be the nation's first black president, while pretending to be merely an observation about a far away conflict.
For Romney's campaign, race is treacherous ground that he can't resist mining for votes, and he has just used Israel as a means of tapping it from a safe distance.
Romney can't resist employing subtle racist appeals because he draws support from white voters who despise Obama, and for reasons that are often intertwined with crude racial stereotypes. Consider the ugly accusations -- not just from Romney, but from other Republicans in the course of the primaries -- that Obama is a socialist, who has turned us into a country dependent upon government handouts. Such depictions have carried more than a faint echo of old-school talk of "welfare queens," a term in which "black" always seemed like a silent consonant.
The endless and ridiculous questioning of Obama's citizenship from within Republican ranks operates on the surface of deeper unease that a man of mixed race can be "one of us," fueling a quest for proof that he isn't.
The Republican nominee must feel perpetual temptation to stimulate white discomfort with Obama while subtly celebrating white superiority -- a message that surely appeals to a core segment of voters. At the same time, Romney has to manage this appeal with exceeding care given how easily it could blow up in his face, enhancing his pedigree as a prep school boy whose Daddy was governor, and who made his own fortune as a private equity guy. These are traits that -- combined with the man Romney actually seems to be -- mark him as out of touch with people who are not just like him. Which is to say, people who are neither exceedingly rich, exceedingly white, nor in possession of the keys to multiple residences.
Romney's most potent appeal to white voters unhappy with Obama is his tireless championing of the narrative of American self-reliance: the persistent idea that successful people owe their good fortune not to lucky happenstance, such as the wealth of their parents, but to their own hard work, and their own decency as people. His campaign, if nothing else, pushes back against the notion that American success reflects a system stacked in favor of select groups: industries that benefit from corporate welfare; white kids who benefit from better schools and health care; rich people who can afford to hire accountants to find loopholes in the tax code.
He is asking for votes by telling the story of a mystical America in which life is equally fair for everyone, one in which winners and losers reflect their innate virtues. So help yourself to a giant tax cut, wealthy Americans, because you've earned it! And look in the mirror, struggling people who may need help, because you are the loser spawn of damaged culture.
This is something Romney could never say quite so explicitly at home -- at least, not without running the risk of being branded insensitive and maybe a racist. But the upside of owning this message seems clear: He cultivates support among those distrustful of government, the usual means of rectifying systemic injustice such as that which separates white America from black America, and Palestine from Israel.
In a bid to capture that upside while avoiding the downside, he flies to Israel and says it there.
Here is domestic political opportunism playing out abroad.
And here is a useful window into the soul of a man who wants to be president.