IN A presidential primary state unmatched for its history of racially charged politics, Mitt Romney arrived with the dumb luck of seeming far less venomous than some other contenders. Rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum bit themselves in Iowa and New Hampshire with stereotyped associations of African-Americans with food stamps, while Ron Paul was embarrassed by his 1992 newsletter that said the Los Angeles riots over the Rodney King verdict ended only when “it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.’’
But make no mistake. Romney knows how to speak in the forked tongue of racial codes. For those with short memories, he said in 2007 he was “happy’’ to receive the endorsements of the chancellor and dean of Bob Jones University, the school that banned interracial dating until 2000 and teaches that Romney’s own Mormon faith is a cult. Just two months ago, Chancellor Bob Jones III said of President Obama, “I’ve no reason to think he’s a Christian.’’
The codes remain clear in a state where John McCain’s 2000 run was partially done in by rumors that his Bengali adopted child was black and illegitimately fathered by him. In Romney’s first appearance here after his New Hampshire victory, he repeated his line that his campaign against Obama would be about the “soul of America.’’ In a state that has yet to rest the soul of the Confederacy, the biggest applause he received was when he declared: “I want to restore America.’’
Much more notable was his appearance the next morning at a motorcycle dealership in the working-class city of Greer. His script was more tailored and honed. Romney said when he is asked how he is going to cut federal spending, he said he is inspired by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who happens to be leading the charge on Capitol Hill to slash welfare benefits.
Romney’s patented “soul’’ line took on a more pointed tone when he said, “People came here for hundreds of years seeking opportunity for themselves and for their kids. And they knew that in this, if you will, merit society, in this opportunity society, that by virtue of what education you could get and working hard and taking risks and making great dreams you can accomplish all sorts of extraordinary things. And that’s the history of America.’’
Add to this a comment Romney made on the Iowa trail, saying he was “frightened that we have a president that doesn’t understand America.’’ This echoes Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin who, in the desperate final weeks of the 2008 campaign, inflamed her audience by saying, “I am so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America.’’
Actually, there is a lot that black people could tell Romney about the importance of being judged on your merits — because African-American merit was crushed for hundreds of years. Instead, in Greer, Romney’s stump speech edged toward a morality play between hard work, merit, and the notion that Obama represents the “entitlement society’’ mocked by Gingrich, Santorum and Paul.
Back in 2007, Hillary Clinton’s strategists advised her in a memo, later leaked, that the best way to defeat Obama would be to convince voters that he is “not fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.’’ She, for the most part, declined. But Romney has no such qualms.
“He wants to transform us into a European-style welfare state in my view,’’ Romney said. “And the view of that is instead of relying on hard work. . . he instead wants to take money from someone and give it to the others.’’
That’s reminiscent of the 1990 ad by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms when he was fighting off a strong challenge from African-American Harvey Gantt. The ad showed white hands crumpling a job rejection letter to the narrative: “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is.’’
To make sure everyone got the code, Romney hammered home that Obama and the Democrats are “about more and more benefits, more and more free stuff. . . If you’re really looking for someone who will create more and more benefits and promise more and more free stuff to ya, that’s not me, you already got that president.’’
Free stuff, welfare state, merit, hard work, restore America. It is not as clumsy or crass as Gingrich, Santorum, or Paul. But it communicates the same. When Romney won New Hampshire, he decried attacks on himself as “the bitter politics of envy.’’ But on the bitter politics of race, the forked tongue flicks dangerously outward.Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.