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May 18, 2012 5:42 PM The Big Dog Whistle

By Ed Kilgore

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 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.

Comments

  • c u n d gulag on May 18, 2012 6:02 PM:

    If Mitt was Sam Brownback, he'd be a Jesus-like figure for Conservatives.

    All he is, is a Teabagging poseur, with no center of gravity, an ego as large as the solar system, and a sense of entitlement to be President, the size of a galaxy.

    And he will do the bidding of those who "brung him."

    He will NOT be a moderate as President.

    Right now, he's running a little bit to the left of his loony right-wing base.

    Mitt's trying to look like a "Centrist."

    And he may win doing that, because, next to a pack of rabid, starving wolves, a hyaena between meals starts to look like feckin' Snoopy.

  • jeff In Ohio on May 18, 2012 6:03 PM:

    I have an alternative theory why Mitt doesn't want to talk about the stuff other Wingnuts want to talk about - Wright, Ayers, etc. It's because he's got his own problems that the his opposition will bang him one way then there other: being a leader in church that actively discriminated against African-Americans and being a draft dodger.

    I say egg them on, it will not end well.

  • MuddyLee on May 18, 2012 9:01 PM:

    Democrats, progressives, moderates, anybody who isn't suffering from Obama Derangement Syndrome: we can't let Romney win. If he wins, the tea party wins. If he wins, Grover Norquist wins. If he wins, Paul Ryan wins. If he wins, Mitch McConnell wins. If he wins, Rush Limbaugh wins. If Romney wins, all the disciples of Ayn Rand win. If Mitt wins, kiss the New Deal and sixties liberal legislation goodbye. If the repubs win, welcome to permanent income inequality rebranded as the American Way. We can't let Mitt Romney win.

  • Gulf guy on May 18, 2012 9:07 PM:

    Great post! I'll definitely be sharing this.

  • Sean Scallon on May 19, 2012 12:51 AM:

    The "dog whistle" may have worked, say in 1988, a long time ago when "code words" were all the rage. But at this point in time I have a suspicion more "conservatives" are more interested in hearing a bullhorn than a dog whistle, as the Ricketts affair shows. An obtuse Romney better hope there is a double-dip recession or he won't have much to talk about and Hannities of the world will find little reason to support him.

    But hey, they were warned weren't they?

  • Emily on May 19, 2012 7:48 AM:

    Excellent, classic post. There are some insights here that are so obviously spot-on, but I'd never thought of Romney's campaign in precisely these terms before. "The big dog whistle" should be up there along with "The Big Lie" (i.e. Fannie and Freddie caused the financial crisis) as a political catchphrase. It's exactly what Romney's doing, and it's quite brilliant, though quite scary too. Props to Ed for illuminating this in such a succinct way . . . he'd make a good strategist for Romney, if the idea of it didn't repulse him so much! :-)

  • Patango on May 19, 2012 8:56 AM:

    Please do not sell yourself short Mr Kilgore , you have a variety of wonderful posts , when you lay out this balancing act , it confirms to me that the romney campaign will eventually implode upon its self , how can people find balance with those who are driving off a cliff?

    Romney will run his campaign like a rich persons son who is entitled to a kingship , a venture capitalist who enjoys offending the help (working class) , with a campaign populated by liberty university graduate types , what could possibly go wrong? lol

    Your topic also reminds me that rove , bush , cheney had the advantage of hiding a lot of these issues under the rug in 2000 , the michelle bachmann party will have none of that now

  • N.Wells on May 19, 2012 9:35 AM:

    This is why the Democrats must nationalize the election into a complete rejection of the Republicans. The Republicans set up the problem in the first place, by deliberately over-indebting the government so that they can justify cutting off social spending. Then they precipitated the Bush recession by excess deregulation in favor of their buddies in the financial industries. Next, they they did everything they could to prevent the Democrats from fixing the problem and indeed they tried to make it worse by stifling government stimulus and cutting public-sector employment. Now they want to double-down on everything. If the Democrats call this out everywhere all the time and demand rejection of all Republicans because they are all working in unison with wrong methods toward wrong goals, then their message has a chance of getting through to the electorate. Otherwise, it's going to come out of the media as "he said, she said".

    Having Obama win and leaving either the Senate or the House in Republican hands will not be enough of a victory, but a recipe of four more years of gridlock interleaved with Republican-induced disasters.

  • Mark L on May 20, 2012 10:42 AM:

    As far as Republicans are concerned, the rich are rich because they deserve to be rich and the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor. The economic collapse was basically divine retribution.

  • clarence swinney on September 06, 2012 8:15 AM:

    Big Dog WhiCLINTON PRAISE-WITH PLEASURE
    GDP--rose from 6300 to 11,600
    NATIONAL INCOME-5,000 to 8,000 Billion--took 20 years to grow 2500B before Clinton
    JOBS CREATED--over 22 million--record by far
    AVERAGE WEEKLY EARNINGS--$360 to $478
    AVERAGE WEEKLY HOURS WORKED--never hit 35.0--hit that  mark 4 times in 80's
    UNEMPLOYMENT--from 7.2% down down down to 3.9%
    WELFARE TO WORK—11,533,710 on federal roll in 1996 and 3,880,321 in 2007.
    MINIMUM WAGE--$4.25 to $5.15
    MINORITIES--did exceedingly well
    HOME OWNERSHIP--hit all time high
    DEFICIT--290 Billion to whoopee a SURPLUS
    DEBT----+28%---300% increase over prior12 years
    FEDERAL SPENDING--+28%---80% under Reagan- who da true conservative?
    DOW JONES AVERAGE--3,500 to 11,800  all it's history to get to 3500 and Clinton zooms it
    NASDAQ--700 to 5,000---all of it's history to get to 700 and Clinton zooms it
    VALUES INDEXES-- almost all bad went down--good went up in zoom zoom zoom
    FOREIGN AFFAIRS--Peace on Earth good will toward each other---Mark of a true Christian--what has Bush done to Peace on Earth?
    POPULARITY---highest poll ratings  in history during peacetime in  AFRICA, ASIA AND EUROPE even 98.5% in Moscow--left office with highest gallup rating since it was started in 1920's.
    STAND UP FOR JUSTICE--evil conservatives spent $110,000,000 on hearings and investigations and caught--- ONE--- very evil man who took a few plane rides to events.
    BOW YOUR HEADS--Thank you God for sending us a man of Bill Clinton's character, intelligence, knowledge of governance, ability to face up to crises without whimpering and a great leader of the world.
    THANK YOU GOD FOR THE GOOD TIMES THE CLINTON YEARS.


    stle is history best in history

  • clarence swinney on September 06, 2012 8:17 AM:

    big dCLINTON PRAISE-WITH PLEASURE
    GDP--rose from 6300 to 11,600
    NATIONAL INCOME-5,000 to 8,000 Billion--took 20 years to grow 2500B before Clinton
    JOBS CREATED--over 22 million--record by far
    AVERAGE WEEKLY EARNINGS--$360 to $478
    AVERAGE WEEKLY HOURS WORKED--never hit 35.0--hit that  mark 4 times in 80's
    UNEMPLOYMENT--from 7.2% down down down to 3.9%
    WELFARE TO WORK—11,533,710 on federal roll in 1996 and 3,880,321 in 2007.
    MINIMUM WAGE--$4.25 to $5.15
    MINORITIES--did exceedingly well
    HOME OWNERSHIP--hit all time high
    DEFICIT--290 Billion to whoopee a SURPLUS
    DEBT----+28%---300% increase over prior12 years
    FEDERAL SPENDING--+28%---80% under Reagan- who da true conservative?
    DOW JONES AVERAGE--3,500 to 11,800  all it's history to get to 3500 and Clinton zooms it
    NASDAQ--700 to 5,000---all of it's history to get to 700 and Clinton zooms it
    VALUES INDEXES-- almost all bad went down--good went up in zoom zoom zoom
    FOREIGN AFFAIRS--Peace on Earth good will toward each other---Mark of a true Christian--what has Bush done to Peace on Earth?
    POPULARITY---highest poll ratings  in history during peacetime in  AFRICA, ASIA AND EUROPE even 98.5% in Moscow--left office with highest gallup rating since it was started in 1920's.
    STAND UP FOR JUSTICE--evil conservatives spent $110,000,000 on hearings and investigations and caught--- ONE--- very evil man who took a few plane rides to events.
    BOW YOUR HEADS--Thank you God for sending us a man of Bill Clinton's character, intelligence, knowledge of governance, ability to face up to crises without whimpering and a great leader of the world.
    THANK YOU GOD FOR THE GOOD TIMES THE CLINTON YEARS.