08/20/2012 03:45 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

The Romney Campaign's Strategic Race-Baiting

So we have an acrimonious presidential campaign on our hands. Big deal. Wringing our hands about the decline of civility in public life will not reveal how the particular mud being slung by the candidates tells us a thing or two about our political culture. We should all have grown tired of being led by the nose through a media cycle of fixating on a politician's remark until a recantation or apology is offered. The endless repetition of a single sound bite is excruciatingly boring, the recantations and apologies are never sincere, and the whole affair reduces political debate to a shallow-minded policing of acceptable turns of phrase.

But some remarks form a pattern worth analyzing. And one pattern now clear is the racially charged political speech emerging from the Romney campaign. This goes beyond a single stray remark, like the comment on "chains" made by Joe Biden, that great font of stray remarks. Romney has made a few moves that seem designed to appeal to voters with an antipathy to minorities. It is hard to remember a candidate ever using a chorus of boos at the NAACP as a plank prominently displayed in his campaign platform. Many people might be at least personally embarrassed by such a reception. Not Romney, who afterwards declared that he knew he would be booed at the NAACP but went anyway.

That is a remarkable statement. In the careful planning of a political campaign, these boos were anticipated and embraced precisely because they send a message that, in my opinion, the GOP wants the electorate to hear: Romney is the candidate that the NAACP does not want in the White House. As we near November, that message has become louder and more explicit. Romney has said that Obama needs to take his "campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago." And appearing on CBS, he described the Obama campaign as "designed to bring a sense of enmity and jealousy and anger."

To call such remarks racially coded is to pay them the compliment of being subtle. These are explicitly racist remarks that have little to do with the Obama campaign or anything we have seen of the president's public persona. Touré is exactly right to call Romney's statements race-baiting. Romney and his campaign are clearly using keywords that associate Obama with minority urban poverty, fomenting the fear that such individuals would like nothing better than to use government programs as a means of leeching off of the hard-earned successes of others. Such race-baiting complements the thick narrative of self-made success in which Romney and Ryan drape themselves at every opportunity.

This is an offensive tactic, and one that should lead us to respect John McCain's choice not to take such a path in 2008. We can cry foul to the cable-news referees of public discourse, demanding an apology and a trip to the free-throw line. But that would be a dubious effort. It is dispiriting that race-baiting is being used as a campaign strategy in 2012, but that's where we are. The real question is what the GOP hopes to gain with this strategy. And it seems clear enough that they have written off the votes of urban minorities and are making an appeal to independent white suburbanites, the sort of individuals who have pulled their children out of public schools and while their hours away on freeways stuffed with their fellow paranoiacs in an elaborate effort to avoid contact with the kind of angry, idle urban poor they see on TV. Such self-styled bootstrap-pullers have come to see all federal programs as a giveaway to minorities, though in fact they are entirely dependent on the federal government's provision of interstates, affordable petrocarbons, land subsidies, and mortgage benefits.

Recent polling suggests that these are the individuals who will decide the election: Obama holds the city, Romney the country, and the suburbs are divided. It is thus the business of a winning presidential campaign to sway the kind of voter to whom Romney's race-baiting is meant to appeal. That is no small rhetorical challenge for Obama. Playing up the ways in which we all avail ourselves of federally funded programs flies too strongly in the face of such a voter's perception of self-reliance, and is likely to be met with hostility. More promising is an appeal to the kind of stingy self-interest that gives the race-baiting strategy its traction: Romney-Ryan trickle-down economics are an enormous giveaway of middle-class tax resources, making the Wall-Street bailout the new normal. This would be a slight but significant shift away from the Obama campaign's attacks on the shockingly low tax rates for high earners favored by the GOP, an approach that can be dismissed as "jealous" opposition to upward mobility. If I were on the Obama 2012 team, I would place higher education at the fore of such debates: the economic priorities of the Romney-Ryan campaign will make it increasingly difficult for middle-class families to send their kids to college. Here President Obama might point to his administration's efforts to confront sky-rocketing student debt, one of this century's greatest threats to the spending power of the middle class.

But of course I am not on the Obama 2012 team. And gladly so. It's been a silly campaign that has over-emphasized the president's celebrity appeal, a pale shadow of 2008, which made many of us believe that electoral politics could produce meaningful change. Romney's race-baiting is appalling on every conceivable level; it is an insult to his opponent and to the electorate. But one wonders if an Obama campaign that has yet to hit its stride can counter it.