WaPo: Racism in Obama TV Ad?

The Obama campaign has released a new ad criticizing Mitt Romney for having a Swiss bank account and wanting to keep tax breaks for corporations that offshore jobs.  The commercial’s most devastating line: Romney once railed against the deadly pollution from a coal plant.

I know what you’re thinking: Totally racist, right?

That’s sort of the point of Karen Tumulty‘s piece today in the Washington Post (10/23/12). Under the headline “Obama’s ‘Not One of Us’ Attack on Romney Echoes Racial Code,” Tumulty uses complaints from right-wing bloggers to lead a discussion about the commercial, which she says “echoes a slogan that has been used as a racial code over at least the past half-century.”

Tumultly tells us that one writer at the National Review‘s Corner blog objected to the ad. (We’ll set aside the idea that the National Review is the place to go for deep critiques of racism.) Tumulty then cites another blogger at the American Thinker site, who wonders about the double standard: “Had Romney pulled this on him, we’d need a special two-hour episode of Hardball to deal with the dog-whistle implications.” (Tumulty’s actually misidentifying the writer of that passage, which was really published by the right-wing blog Hot Air.)

Of course, there are plenty of reasons why Romney calling Obama “not one of us” would have “dog-whistle implications.” Since the campaign season has given us concocted stories about Obama’s welfare policies and Republican rhetoric about Obama the “food stamp president,” it’s not hard to see racist “code” all around us. But media don’t tend to spend a lot of time dwelling on that.

Karen Tumulty

Karen Tumulty (photo: Center for American Progress)

Indeed, the hardest thing to fathom is why Tumulty is giving this critique any space at all. She notes that the Obama campaign explains that the ad is about the auto bailout and other economic issues–which is obvious enough to anyone who spends 30 seconds watching the ad.

And Tumulty uses this “controversy” to give readers a quick look at racist rhetoric and imagery in earlier political campaigns, like a Republican congressman who won a 1982 election running a TV ad that “featured footage of Confederate monuments” along with the tagline, “He’s one of us.” The idea that this ad has anything to do with that ad is, on its face, rather absurd.

Tumulty nonetheless makes a play for “balance” by noting that the two major party candidates have both seen their share of bigotry:

Obama, the nation’s first black president, has himself been a target of insinuations of otherness, including false but widely circulated suggestions that he was not born in this country and that he is a Muslim. During this presidential campaign, his allies say, they have seen racial coding in accusations that Obama is a “food stamp president” and in popular tea party slogans such as “Take back our country.”

Romney has faced mistrust and prejudice as well, regarding his Mormon faith.

Yes, those two experiences are eerily similar.

If anything, the most revealing part of the ad is how it closes–with an image of Romney saying in 2003 that a coal plant “kills people.”

If there’s a message in the ad, that is the one that is most resonant. Romney was once a fierce critic of a polluting industry–just listen to him angrily denounce this dirty polluter! The next thing you see is the apparently controversial on-screen graphic: “Mitt Romney: Not One of Us.”

There is literally no way to interpret that as having anything to do with “racial code.” The message is that Romney’s not as friendly to the coal industry as he says he is. The odd politics of such an appeal would be a far more interesting topic than empty right-wing posturing.



About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.