Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Mitt Romney did not intend to run a campaign based on fear and loathing, but somehow that is exactly what he’s wound up doing. When the presidential campaign was just getting under way, back in 2011, Romney had a much more sunny campaign strategy, one taken right out of the political science literature: talk about nothing but jobs and the economy, and let the dismal labor market sweep President Barack Obama out of the White House. After the entirely avoidable Summer Debt Ceiling Crisis of 2011, this strategy made perfect sense. Unemployment was persistently high and Obama’s approval ratings hovered somewhere in low 40’s. Unemployment remains unacceptably high a year later, but Romney’s strategy has shifted away from pinning the blame on the donkeys towards stirring up contempt towards those that are different and, in the minds of Romney supporters, unworthy.
Consider two pillars of Romney’s campaign: attacking Obama on welfare waivers and attacking Obama on his ‘contempt for small business and entrepreneurialism’ i.e. “you didn’t build that.” Both of these attacks are based on a bald-faced lie or distortion, and both of these attacks build Romney’s newly preferred narrative that Obama is someone foreign to the American experience who wants to take the America we know and love away, take it away from hardworking folks and transform it into something unrecognizable and undesirable.
The “you didn’t build that” attack sets the mood for the aforementioned narrative Romney has been pushing as of late. Several weeks ago Obama did a very poor Elizabeth Warren impression and said corporations didn’t build the infrastructure that allows them to compete. The Romney campaign, which has made an art form of taking the President’s remarks out of context, ran with it and even made a theme of the day based on Obama’s horrendous phrasing for the Republican National Convention. Here, Romney is stroking the fears of business people, and those that wish to build a business, by implying that Obama does not appreciate the importance of entrepreneurship to the American way of life, and what’s more, that Obama is actively seeking to break the entrepreneurial spirit that has to this point driven America forward.
Next, let’s examine Romney’s welfare waiver attacks. If you don’t live in a swing state or you don’t follow the campaign extremely closely, you might have missed this line of attack. It isn’t being widely reported in the media, and Romney isn’t talking about it much, outside of purchasing a massive amount of airtime to run ads on this line of attack. What little is being discussed about the attack ad is how laughably and demonstrably false it is. But the ad, which accuses Obama of gutting welfare reform by granting waivers to states on mandated work requirements, serves its purpose, the same purpose as Reagan’s infamous welfare queen attacks in the 70’s, to convince white working to middle class voters that their hard earned tax dollars are being given to non-working welfare recipients, or to put it bluntly, black people.
While the subtle racial component of the ad is bad enough, in the context of over 8 percent unemployment, this attack takes on a whole new layer of meaning. Unemployed and underemployed voters look at this mythical new handout and ask why they haven’t received any of it. Meanwhile, those that are still fully employed ask why their tax dollars are going towards people who, they believe, don’t fully deserve it. It is an awfully clever attack for somebody that wants you to believe that the first African American president is trying to conduct a secret transfer of wealth to his fellow African Americans. Too bad it doesn’t have a shred of truth to it. It is an ugly display of race bating that is supposed to play on the fears that divide us. And based on the juice that the Romney campaign is putting behind this attack, they clearly think it is working. They have left their previous campaign based on discontent with the Obama economy behind, and are now waging a campaign fueled only by angry, divisive lies.
However, I would be disingenuous if I said that Obama wasn’t also running a campaign with a heavy component of fear and loathing. He is. Democrats want you to loath Romney’s business practices, his lack of transparency regarding his taxes, his unabashed 1%-ness. Obama wants you to be afraid of a Romney occupied White House and a Republican Congress that would funnel wealth from the middle class to the wealthy, eliminate supports for the weakest among us, turn the clock back on homosexual and women’s rights to the state they were in in the 1950s, limit young people’s access to education, and fundamentally transform the structure of Medicare for those under 55 years old. Of course, the Ryan-Romney ticket does actually want to do all those things. Maybe after the conventions things will change, but for now, hope and change have left the building. Fear and loathing are here to stay.