“Obama Isn’t Working” Probably Isn’t Racist

Yes, Republicans have a horrible history on race. But Mitt Romney doesn't need to appeal to bigoted voters.

Some good news for both Democrats and Republicans: Mitt Romney already has the racist vote wrapped up.

It’s easy to see why: The president is black.

And Mitt isn’t just white—he comes about as close as anybody in modern politics to embodying the stereotype of white male patrician last seen in the movies of Frank Capra. So the racists who decide to vote against President Obama have two choices in November’s election: A) Romney, or B) some crackpot third party. Either way, Romney doesn’t have to worry about them voting for his opponent.

Why is this good news? Because it means that the GOP doesn’t have to resort to its usual overt and covert forms of racism to win the White House this year. And that, in turn, means that Democrats can spend less time trying to sniff out the usual racial dog-whistles that seem to make an appearance every four years or so.

Which means we probably don’t need to spend too much time worrying about Romney’s latest slogan: “Obama Isn’t Working.”

Ostensibly, the slogan is meant to highlight the fact that the economy hasn’t been super-great under the stewardship of the president. (That’s probably because George W. Bush left things in tatters, but hey: Politics is politics.)

Other folks, though, see in the slogan something more pernicious at work—something meant to link Obama to noxious stereotypes about lazy African Americans.

The Nation’s Jamelle Bouie was one of several commentators to make the comparison. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to say that this is a clear attempt to evoke the stereotype of lazy, shiftless blacks,” he wrote.

I’m not so sure.

It’s not that I don’t think that Republicans aren’t often deeply cynical about race. They’ve spent more than 40 years appealing to the worst instincts of white racists, and they’ve spent the last four years trying to prove that Obama is the real racist. Simply put: The GOP hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt on race matters.

So why give Romney that benefit in this case? Simple: Numbers.

Because the vast majority of racists are automatically voting against Obama anyway, there’s not much Romney can do to increase his support among those voters. Racists alone won’t give him victory in November, however: Romney is going to have to appeal to independent voters—and in 2008, remember, those voters swung overwhelmingly to Obama. They were happy to cast their ballots for a black man: How likely is it that racial appeals would successfully woo them back into the Republican camp? Racism, in this case, is the wrong way to go.

Republicans think Democrats accused opponents of racism far too easily. They’re probably right. On the other hand, Republicans deserve to be accused of racism far more often than they’ll admit. In this case, maybe they’re both right.

The smart play in politics is to always take the most cynical option among possible choices. In this case, the cynical choice is to believe that Romney isn’t appealing to racism—because he doesn’t really have to.

So “Obama Isn’t Working” probably isn’t racist. That doesn’t mean Republicans have seen the light. It just means they’re trying to get Mitt Romney elected.