The Big Dog Whistle

Jonathan Chait notes today that the Romney campaign appears to be basing its message entirely on the monomaniacal assertion that the election is a referendum on a bad economy. If the economy improves more than expected, the campaign’s Plan B is to argue it’s not improving enough. And if they’re asked why Hispanics should vote for a candidate renowned for his nasty views on immigration, why the answer is simply that Hispanics have suffered disproportionately from the bad economy. There are a thousand roads that all lead to this same destination.

Chait calls this a “smart, unsentimental strategy,” and I tend to agree. But there is one big problem: much as Team Mitt wants to talk only about the economy, his party’s conservative activist “base” and its media affiliates keep wanting to talk about everything else. We saw this over and over again during the Republican primaries, and we saw it again yesterday when the Romney campaign had to quash the very idea of a Super-PAC ad campaign raising the culture-and-race-war spectre of Jeremiah Wright.

It’s worth remembering in this connection that much as conservatives want to blame Obama and “socialism” for economic problems, they haven’t displayed very convincing empathy for the actual sufferers. You may recall that in 2008, when complaining about unemployment wasn’t a weapon that could be used against Democrats, Mike Huckabee became persona non grata among many on the Right for daring suggest the economy wasn’t absolutely ideal. Even after Obama took office, many conservatives had trouble suppressing their grim satisfaction that the housing and financial collapse had punished all those irresponsible homebuyers, and many spoke of the recession as being one of those healthy “corrections” that would wring excessive borrowing out of the system. Even now, when Republicans aren’t justifying austerity measures as necessary to economic growth, they’re lauding them as a moral tonic for the poor. It’s obvious they’d support exactly the same policies no matter what was happening to the economy; after all, they always have.

Fortunately for Romney, a lot of non-economic itches can be scratched by incessantly claiming that Big Government caused the recession or is impeding the recovery. Maybe you support “entitlement reform” because you are furious at the looters who are living at the expense of the hard-earned tax dollars of the virtuously well-off. Mitt won’t often “go there,” but he’s for “entitlement reform” on ostensibly economic grounds, so you’re on his team. Maybe you hate “ObamaCare” because you think it’s encouraging the Second Holocaust of legalized abortion, or enabling young women to have sex, or robbing seniors of the Medicare benefits they earned to give health care coverage to shiftless minorities. Mitt won’t talk about that, but he’s promised to kill ObamaCare as fast as he can, so that’s enough. Maybe you are upset about environmentalism because you view it as a front for neo-pagan assaults on the God-given dominion over the earth you are supposed to enjoy. Mitt wouldn’t put it that way. But he will argue for scrapping environmental regulations tout court to free up the Great American Job-Creating Machine and bring down gas prices. And maybe you hate public education because you view “government schools” as satanic indoctrination centers for secularism, and colleges as places where elitist professors mock traditional values and let young women have sex. Mitt won’t come right out and talk about any of that, either, but he frowns on federal education programs because we just can’t afford them.

Team Romney hasn’t quite figured out a way to make the existential threat to religious liberty an economic issue, but they’re probably working on it.

I talk a lot about Republican pols learning to make “dog whistle” appeals that mean one thing to the cognescenti of this or that segment of the conservative “base,” and something else–or nothing at all–to swing voters. But in a certain sense, the entire Romney campaign is one big dog whistle aimed at appealing to persuadable voters on the single issue of the economy, while letting the restive “base” hear all sorts of other things involving cultural resentments and the desire to return to the good old days before the New Deal and the 60s began to ruin the Founders’ design and defy the Creator’s moral code. It’s not as easy for him as it would be for a Republican nominee “the base” implicitly trusts. But Obama-hatred covers an awful lot of sins, so the demands on him to come right out and express the feelings of “the base” will only rise to the boiling point if conservatives fear he’s losing, just as happened to John McCain late in the 2008 campaign.

Putting aside my own predilections, I’m fascinated from an analytical point of view by the balancing act Mitt’s trying to pull off. I only wish it didn’t really matter in real life.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.