Campaign 2012: The Return to Nixonland
By now, most of us have accepted that one of the central premises of Obama’s 2008 campaign — that he was the man to end the culture war and begin a new era of good feelings — was foolish and naive. Some folks blame the perfidy of various Republican individuals; others prefer to highlight the structural incentives against cooperation. And, really, these two schools of thought are hardly mutually exclusive. Where the blame lies, however, is secondary. The key point is that the dream of bipartisanship died a quick and ignominious death during Obama’s first term, and we were all witness.
The post-partisan element of Obama’s last campaign was always, to my eyes, its least inspiring. I didn’t take it particularly seriously, thinking the candidate’s insistence on being able to cordially discover the middle-ground in any and all dispute was simply the consequence of savvy political maneuvering; no one actually believes this shit, I thought. Needless to say, I spent much of the President’s first term realizing that, yes, in fact, at least someone believes this shit. Or did believe. Not so much anymore.
Yet while I’m happy to see the hopey-changey stuff chucked into the recycling bin, I’ve got to admit that I’m a little taken aback — disheartened, even — to see how far in the other direction this year’s campaign is going. As November draws closer, and as the demographic lines separating Republican and Democratic voters become unscalable walls of mutual alienation, the campaign discourse is backsliding into America’s all-too-familiar pattern of electing a president in an atmosphere of bitterness, fear, and racial resentment.
Forget 2008; at this point, we’re heading for Nixonland.
As I said, I’m disappointed. But that doesn’t mean I’m surprised. Long before it was clear who the Republican nominee would be, I expected this year’s election to be something of a return to normalcy in regard to US politics and race relations. For one thing, President Obama was inevitably going to be less acceptable to a decent chunk of white voters than he was in 2008. Four years of a rough economy and often racially tinged anti-Obama media campaigns from conservatives and Republicans all but guaranteed the President’s approval among whites (a group that, back in the halcyon days of 2008, he still decisively lost) would plummet.
Even if the political context was more forgiving, Obama was so new and unknown in 2008 that many voters were able to project their preferences onto him; and for some whites, that no doubt entailed imagining him to be less “black” than they’ve subsequently determined he is. I can remember the great disappointment more than a few whites expressed after Obama criticized Henry Louis Gates’s being arrested for “breaking into” his own house. Yet even if Obama had avoided wading into racial issues even more than he has — difficult to imagine, but not impossible — there were going to be white supporters abandoning ship. I remember how, in 2008, one voter told a friend of mine who was canvassing for Obama to move on to the next house. Why? “I’m voting for the nigger already.”
But although Obama himself has undeniable influence on racial and ethnic politics in America, the President is threatening to some voters not because of who he is but because of what he represents. As Jonathan Chait delved into at-length for a recent New York cover story, there is a momentous demographic change happening right now in America, one that may affect the country’s politics as much as its census. Judging by the raft of anti-immigrant bills proposed or passed by state legislatures throughout the South and Southwest, it’s fair to say that this new America is not being ushered in with open arms by everyone. Four years into the Obama presidency, a juncture that future observers may flag as a Before and After point in American history, the imperative to Take Our Country Back — or stand athwart demography yelling Stop! — is that much more urgent.
When it comes to defeating Obama, and all he’s supposed to represent, there’s a very fair question for racially anxious whites to ask: If not now, when?
None of this is lost on the men and women running Mitt Romney’s campaign. And to a certain degree, it would be unfair for me to chastise them for acting in the most fundamental way as politicians and going where the voters are. Still, it doesn’t bode well for the near- and medium-term future of American politics that Romney, right around when he decided to select Paul Ryan as his running mate, shifted his campaign from being one about the economy to being one about an angry, hateful African-American president who is determined to provide handouts to anyone who asks. It would’ve been an ugly, dishonorable turn no matter what — but the fact that the charge (Obama will send checks to layabouts) has been near–universally condemned by fact-checkers and the like renders the tactic uglier still.
And as if to silence any doubt that this was indeed a conscious decision to reframe the debate along lines now deemed more friendly to the GOP, Romney-Ryan have also released an ad castigating Obama’s Medicare cuts. The cuts, the ad says, are being used for a massive new program “that’s not for you.”Considering the weathered, white visage that graces the screen to begin the commercial, I don’t think it takes a mindreader to guess who “you” is supposed to be in the ad; or, crucially, who Obamacare is supposedly for, if not “you.” It’s an awkward shift on the Republicans’ part, quite removed from Romney’s previous attempts to present himself as a no-nonsense technocrat, the ultimate Generic Republican. But playing on racial and generational resentment is one of the central tactics of the GOP as it’s existed since Richard Nixon, and it should surprise no one to see the rightwing adjust to its new line of argument with ease.
Whether or not the campaign’s change in focus is as conscious as I think, it’s yet another bitter irony that so starkly marks the difference between this year’s election and that of 2008. Obama has not only transformed from the ultimate Bambi, post-partisan, anti-politics candidate to the most bruising, partisan, and aggressive Democratic campaigner since perhaps Lyndon Johnson; but a president who some thought would end the culture war is now presiding (likely to his displeasure, not that that matters) over its resurgence. And with demographic trends, as well as a weak labor market, almost certain to continue, there’s little reason to believe the renewed squabbling along racial, generational, and class lines will soon stop. It’s more likely, in fact, to get even worse.