09/13/2012 02:16 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Smears of a Clown: The Romney Campaign Keeps Blowing the Dog-Whistle

There is little doubt now that the Romney campaign is pursuing desperately a dog-whistle campaign that acts on the approach laid out by President Nixon: "You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks... The key is to devise a system that recognizes that while not appearing to." Our national tapestry is more multi-layered than it was 40 years ago. Consequently, this play-to-the-basest (sic) strategy is itself more complicated. It's not just blacks anymore, but gays, Muslims, certain kinds of immigrants and so on. The goal: demonize the "other" without admitting you're doing so.

Team Romney has persisted in repeating a blatantly false attack about welfare and work requirements for two months now, despite nearly universal condemnation of its falsity. That attack is only one clear instance of the larger strategy -- rile up the resentments of white voters while hiding behind the (thinnest) veneer of plausible deniability that you are deliberately and gratuitously stoking racial resentments. The far-from-liberal Ron Fournier made clear in a recent article that picking at such scabrous wounds was precisely the intent of the Romney camp, which has vowed to keep pressing the welfare deceit in determined defiance of the "fact-checkers."

Governor Romney's bizarre outburst in the aftermath of the attacks on the American embassies in Libya and Egypt was -- however ill-conceived -- of a piece with the same approach. Romney was roundly condemned for his fulminations, which were based on a factual falsehood (what else is new?) -- a statement issued before the attacks by the embassy in Cairo was used by Romney to insist that Obama was apologizing for those responsible for the attack itself. Romney also took heat for appearing to almost gleefully jump on a tragedy in order to score the cheapest political points.

But Romney's efforts also indulged what has become a staple of the Republican Party -- Muslim-bashing and the attempt to imply that the president is himself a closet Muslim or, at a minimum, a closet sympathizer with Islam's most extreme elements. Brendan Nyhan, in a blog post yesterday titled "The Continuing Relevance of the Obama Muslim Myth," catalogued a few examples in the years-long effort by Republicans to characterize Obama in these terms. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus joined in this particular chorus especially loudly when he tweeted: "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic."

The GOP's recent elevation of Bill Clinton to near Reaganesque adulation is another example. Doing so has arguably been self-defeating, insofar as it has only made the Man from Hope that much more of an effective surrogate for the sitting president. But it also appears to be more of the same -- that Clinton is "one of us," and Obama isn't. Especially hilarious in this context was a recent statement by Newt Gingrich -- the most prominent direct descendant of the Lee Atwater school of politics -- that Bill Clinton was a "real president," while Obama was only a "pretender." Given the extraordinarily ugly depths to which the former speaker and his allies went to slander Clinton when he occupied the Oval Office, this new found respect for Clinton is bracing. But it's also consistent with the larger strategy. A couple of years ago, I wrote about a weirdly credulous New York Times article that wondered why some old GOP hands had suddenly discovered they loved Bill Clinton. I noted at the time that there is, adjusting for certain differences of context, very little daylight between Obama and Clinton on policy grounds, ruling that out as a plausible explanation for why the Gingriches and Trent Lotts of the world would now hold Clinton in such esteem and dislike Obama so much. The Times piece quoted Lott trying gamely to explain this: "You know with Clinton the chemistry was right. He was a good old boy from Arkansas, I was a good old boy from Mississippi, and Newt, he was from Georgia. So he knew what I was about, and I knew where he was coming from."

Yes, the chemistry.

Let me state emphatically that disliking President Obama, intensely or otherwise, doesn't make you a racist. Nor does liking Bill Clinton more than Obama do so. There are countless valid reasons why one might hold such preferences. But the Romney campaign should be afforded no such benefit of the doubt. It has shamelessly attempted to brand Obama by associating him with nasty stereotypes about African-Americans and Islam, while trying to paint Obama as an alien and a foreigner bent on undermining the values Americans hold dear (remember Romney surrogate John Sununu's recent gem: "I wish this president would learn how to be an American."?)

This is ugly stuff and Romney should continue to be called on it.