Having largely failed to excite the conservative base during the primaries, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is trying a new strategy for the general election: uniting the base behind him by picking a fight with black Americans.
That strategy was on display during Romney’s speech to the NAACP convention in Houston, in which he evoked boos by vowing to eliminate the Affordable Care Act as president — though rather than calling the law by its name, he used the term “Obamacare,” which is considered pejorative when coined by opponents of the law. Romney later told Fox News host Neil Cavuto that he expected the boos, leading some political watchers to speculate that he elicited them on purpose, in order to create a soundbite that could be routed back to the conservative base. Message from Romney: your enemies (the “liberal” NAACP) are my enemies.
After the speech, and the Fox News interview, Romney attended a fundraiser in Hamilton, Montana, in which he used a line that could have been uttered by Newt Gingrich. According to the pool report, Romney again referenced the reaction by NAACP audience members to his vow to repeal “Obamacare.” He told the fundraiser crowd: “Remind them of this — if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy — more free stuff. But don’t forget nothing is really free.”
What, no “Obama is the food stamp president?”
It is not a novel strategy. Stoking resentment, particularly among certain groups of white Americans against perceived favoritism and “handouts” to minorities, whether through affirmative action in education or hiring (which actually benefits white women more than minorities) or the social compact, from food assistance to Medicaid to Social Security, is a staple of right wing media and politics. The myth that African-Americans are universally dependent on government, draining the system and “stealing” the incomes of hard-working, self-reliant, “real” Americans — a charge that is increasingly being turned against Hispanics as well, thanks to the caustic debate about illegal immigration — is one way Republicans have solidified the support of white working class voters, particularly in the south, but also in the rust belt and the western states, over the course of a generation.
Playing the resentment card, the “reverse discrimination” card, and the “welfare queens” card is key to the success of conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who pioneered the format in the early 1980s. And these weapons are now part of bare-knuckle Republican politics. It works, despite the irony that some of those who are most hostile to government programs, are themselves dependent on them. And Republican politicians have made slashing food assistance programs and drug testing welfare recipients into staples of state and federal lawmaking.
At campaign time, “welfare queen” politics is an easy substitute for more nuanced campaigning.
It’s why Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississppi, and why George W. Bush spoke at Bob Jones University in 2000, despite the fact that the school still had a policy barring inter-racial dating. It’s why Newt Gingrich called President Obama the “food stamp president,” on Martin Luther King Day, no less; and why Rick Santorum told a campaign crowd he didn’t plan to “make black people’s lives better with welfare.” (He later changed “black” to “blah…) And it’s why Texas Rep. Paul back in the 1990s allowed his name to be placed on newsletters that warned of a coming race war. From Donald Trump’s birtherism and questioning of Barack Obama’s credentials to get into Harvard, to Pat Buchanan calling Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor an affirmative action hire, to the growth of the Tea Party, spreading the gospel of black government dependency and white working class resentment is a winner for the far right.
After all, this is far from the Republican Party whose presidential candidates, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, won 39 and 32 percent of the black vote in 1956 and 1960, respectively (around the percentage Hispanics vote for the GOP today); or whose standard-bearer for governor of Michigan, George Romney, won 30 percent of the black vote on the way to re-election in 1966.