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USA: Making the Election About Race

Monday 3 September 2012, by siawi3


Source: New York Times, August 27, 2012

The Republican ticket is flooding the airwaves with
commercials that develop two themes designed to turn the
presidential contest into a racially freighted resource
competition pitting middle class white voters against
the minority poor.

Ads that accuse President Obama of gutting the work
requirements enacted in the 1996 welfare reform
legislation present the first theme. Ads alleging that
Obama has taken $716 billion from Medicare - a program
serving an overwhelmingly white constituency - in order
to provide health coverage to the heavily black and
Hispanic poor deliver the second. The ads are meant to
work together, to mutually reinforce each other’s

The announcer in one of the Romney campaign’s TV ads
focusing on welfare tells viewers:

In 1996, President Clinton and a bipartisan Congress
helped end welfare as we know it by requiring work
for welfare. But on July 12, President Obama quietly
announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping
the work requirement. Under Obama’s plan, you
wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for
a job. They just send you a welfare check. And
welfare-to-work goes back to being plain old
welfare. Mitt Romney will restore the work
requirement because it works.

The ad includes the following text and photograph: Mitt
Romney for President

Web sites devoted to examining the veracity of political
commercials have sharply criticized the ad.

The Washington Post’s fact checker, Glenn Kessler, gave
the welfare ads his lowest rating, four Pinocchios. The
Tampa Bay Times’s Politifact was equally harsh,
describing the ads as “a drastic distortion” warranting
a “pants on fire” rating. The welfare commercial,
according to Politifact, "inflames old resentments about
able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public

Sharp criticism has done nothing to hold back the Romney
campaign from continuing its offensive - in speeches and
on the air - because the accuracy of the ads is
irrelevant as far as the Republican presidential ticket
is concerned. The goal is not to make a legitimate
critique, but to portray Obama as willing to give the
“undeserving” poor government handouts at the expense of
hardworking taxpayers.

Insofar as Romney can revive anti-welfare sentiments -
which have been relatively quiescent since the enactment
of the 1996 reforms - he may be able to increase voter
motivation among whites whose enthusiasm for Romney has
been dimmed by the barrage of Obama ads criticizing Bain
Capital for firing workers and outsourcing jobs during
Romney’s tenure as C.E.O. of the company.

The racial overtones of Romney’s welfare ads are
relatively explicit. Romney’s Medicare ads are a bit
more subtle.

"You paid into Medicare for years - every paycheck. Now
when you need it, Obama has cut $716 billion from
Medicare," the ad begins, with following picture on the
screen: Mitt Romney for President

The ad continues:

Why? To pay for Obamacare. The money you paid for your
guaranteed health care is going to a massive new
government program that is not for you. Mitt Romney for

In essence, the ad is telling senior voters that the
money they paid to insure their own access to Medicare
after they turn 65 is going, instead, to pay for free
health care for poor people who are younger than 65.

The Romney Medicare ads have a dual purpose. The first
is to deflect the Obama campaign’s attack on the Romney-
Ryan proposal to radically transform the way medical
care for those over 65 is provided. The Associated Press
succinctly described the Romney-Ryan proposal:

Starting in 2023, new retirees on the younger side
of the line [those younger than 55 in 2012] would
get a fixed amount of money from the government to
pick either private health insurance or a federal
plan modeled on Medicare.

Those going on Medicare after 2022 would have to choose
between “premium support” - in other words, a voucher
program - to pay for private health care coverage or an
option to enroll in a program similar to existing
Medicare but without specified funding levels - which
means an end to the guaranteed medical coverage
currently provided for those over 65.

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities sums
up the likely future of health care for seniors under
the Ryan proposal for reform:

The C.B.O. estimates that by 2030 the House Budget
Committee plan would increase the out-of-pocket
share of health care spending for a typical Medicare
beneficiary from the current 25-to-30% range to 68%.
By 2050, the House plan would cut federal health
care spending by approximately two thirds. Both
plans would place substantial administrative burdens
on the most vulnerable and infirm of Medicare’s
enrollees. And both would surrender the considerable
leverage that Medicare can bring to bear on
providers to reduce spending and improve quality.

Polls in key swing states and nationally show that, at
present, voters trust Obama more than Romney to deal
with Medicare, and strongly prefer to leave the Medicare
program as is.

Asked whether “Medicare should continue as it is today”
or "should be changed to a system in which the
government would provide seniors with a fixed amount of
money toward purchasing private health insurance or
Medicare insurance" voters in Florida, Ohio and
Wisconsin decisively chose to keep Medicare unchanged -
by 62-28 in Florida, by 64-27 in Ohio, and by 59-32 in

When asked whom they trust more to handle the Medicare
issue, Florida voters in a Quinnipiac University/New
York Times/CBS News poll, reported on August 23, picked
Obama over Romney by a 50-42 margin. In Ohio, Obama’s
margin was 51-41; in Wisconsin, it was 51-42.

A separate Pew Research Center survey released on August
21 found that 72 percent of voters had heard “a little”
or “a lot” about what Pew described as "a proposal to
change Medicare into a program that would give future
participants a credit toward purchasing private health
insurance coverage." Of those familiar with the
proposal, a plurality, 49 percent, opposed it, while 34
percent favored it.

The bipartisan Battleground Poll conducted August 5-9 by
the Tarrance Group, a Republican firm, and Lake Research
Partners, a Democratic firm, found that voters trusted
Obama over Romney to handle Medicare and Social Security
by a 49-45 margin. The same survey found that voters
trusted Congressional Democrats over Congressional
Republicans to handle Medicare and Social Security by a
48-40 margin.

Romney’s Medicare ad is designed to undermine that
relatively modest but potentially crucial advantage. It
is artfully constructed to turn the issue of health care
into a battle over limited tax dollars between a largely
white population of seniors on Medicare and a
disproportionately minority population of the currently
uninsured who would get health coverage under Obamacare.

Medicare recipients are overwhelmingly white, at 77
percent; 10 percent of recipients are black; and 8
percent Hispanic, with the rest described as coming from
other races and ethnicities.

Obamacare, described in the Romney ad as a "massive new
government program that is not for you," would provide
health coverage to a population of over 30 million that
is not currently insured: 16.3 percent of this
population is black; 30.7 percent is Hispanic; 5.2
percent is Asian-American; and 46.3 percent (less than
half) is made up of non-Hispanic whites.

Politifact described the Medicare ad as “half true”:

Romney’s claim gives the impression that the law
takes money that was already allocated to Medicare
and funds the new health care law with it. In fact,
the law uses a number of measures to try to reduce
the rapid growth of future Medicare spending. Those
savings are then used to offset costs created by the
law - especially coverage for the uninsured - so
that the overall law doesn’t add to the deficit. We
rate his statement Half True.

Politifact also rated a claim Romney made later on the
stump - that "there’s only one president that I know of
in history that robbed Medicare, $716 billion to pay
for a new risky program of his own that we call
Obamacare“- as”mostly false."

The Romney campaign’s shift of focus toward welfare and
Medicare suggests that his strategists are worried that
just disparaging Obama’s ability to deal with the
struggling economy won’t be adequate to produce victory
on November 6.

The importance to the Romney-Ryan ticket of two
overlapping constituencies - whites without college
degrees and white Medicare recipients - cannot be
overestimated. Romney, continuing the Republican
approach of 2010, is banking on a huge turnout among key
white segments of the electorate in order to counter
Obama’s strengths with minority voters as well as with
young and unmarried female voters of all races.

There is extensive poll data showing the depth of
Republican dependence on white voters.

On August 23, Pew Research released its latest findings
on partisan identification, and the gains that the
Republican Party has made among older and non-college
whites since 2004 are remarkable.

Just eight years ago, Pew reports, whites 65 and over
were evenly split in their allegiance, 46 percent
Democratic, 46 percent Republican. In the most recent
findings, these voters are now solidly in the Republican
camp, 54-38, an eight point Republican gain. Elderly
women were 9 points more Democratic than Republican in
2004, 50-41, the opposite of where they are now, 51-42
Republican. Older men, who were 51-41 Republican in
2004, are now 59-33 Republican.

Similarly, white voters without college degrees, of all
ages, have gone from 51-40 Republican in 2004, to 54-37
in 2012, according to Pew.

Most importantly, the Pew surveys show that 89% of
voters who identify themselves as Republican are white.
Faced with few if any possibilities of making gains
among blacks and Hispanics - whose support for Obama has
remained strong - the Romney campaign has no other
choice if the goal is to win but to adopt a strategy to
drive up white turnout.

The Romney campaign is willing to disregard criticism
concerning accuracy and veracity in favor of "blowing
the dog whistle of racism" - resorting to a campaign
appealing to racial symbols, images and issues in its
bid to break the frustratingly persistent Obama lead in
the polls, which has lasted for the past 10 months.

The result is a campaign run at two levels. On the
trail, Paul Ryan argues that "we’re going to make this
about ideas. We’re going to make this about a positive
vision for the future." On television and the Internet,
however, the Romney campaign is clearly determined "to
make this about" race, in the tradition of the notorious
1988 Republican Willie Horton ad, which described the
rape of a white woman by a convicted African-American
murderer released on furlough from a Massachusetts
prison during the gubernatorial administration of
Michael Dukakis and Jesse Helms’s equally infamous
“White Hands” commercial, which depicted a white job
applicant who “needed that job” but was rejected because
“they had to give it to a minority.”

The longer campaigns go on, the nastier they get. Once
unthinkable methods become conventional.

“You can tell they” - the welfare ads- "are landing
punches," Steven Law, president of the Republican super
PAC American Crossroads, told the Wall Street Journal.
Law’s focus group and polling research suggest that the
theme is not necessarily going to work. "The economy is
so lousy for middle-income Americans that the same
people who chafe at the rise of welfare dependency under
Obama don’t automatically default to a `get-a-job’
attitude - because they know there are no jobs."

As the head of a tax-exempt 501(c)4 independent
expenditure committee, Law cannot coordinate campaign
strategy directly with the Romney campaign. Nonetheless,
he is sending a warning. The welfare theme, Law said,
"needs to be done sensitively. Right now it may be more
of an economic issue than a values issue: In other
words, more people on welfare is another disturbing
symptom of Obama’s broken-down economy, rather than an
indictment of those who are on welfare or the culture as
a whole."

Will the Romney campaign heed Law’s advice to keep it
subtle? The principal media consultant for the pro-
Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, which will be
running many of the anti-Obama ads over the next ten
weeks, is Larry McCarthy, who produced the original
Willie Horton ad.

Thomas B. Edsall, a professor of journalism at Columbia
University, is the author of the book "The Age of
Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics,"
which was published earlier this year.