Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Mitt Romney’s tax policy would put “y’all back in chains,” and Campaign 2012 spun off into the outrage zone once again. It’s pointless to deny that the Democrats’ freewheeling No. 2, regardless of how he intended it, invoked a bit of class and race fidelity to the Democratic ticket in his speech before a mixed-race crowd in Danville, Va.
Biden may have been retorting Republican claims about “unshackling” the economy. But a practiced stump speaker (even a gaffe-prone one) doesn’t start dishing y’alls unless he’s trying to establish solidarity with the country folk. And it’s hard to see how a reference to putting people “back” in chains would not be heard (in a town that is roughly half African American) other than as invoking a return to slavery.
“Romney wants to, he said in the first 100 days, he's going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street,” Biden told a crowd of about 800. “They're going to put y’all back in chains.” So identity politics, rarely missing from the American political scene, is back at center stage, if only in slightly more overt form than they have been in the recent past.
The outrage from the Republican camp came swiftly and predictably. The Obama campaign had reached a “new low” while promoting “division and demonization,” said a Romney spokeswoman.
That was sanguine compared with the response from Ben Shapiro, one of the editors over at conservative Breitbart.com. “Race-baiting at its finest,” Shapiro railed, writing that Biden’s remarks were typical of a campaign whose “fallback position appears to be vulgarity and political slander.”
Biden said Tuesday evening that his language in the Virginia speech merely echoed the language of Republicans, including new vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who have used the “unshackling” rhetoric frequently. Still, it would take a remarkably obtuse 21st century American to step into a room with many African Americans spread through the crowd, refer to returning them to chains, and not realize there would be a bit of racial resonance.
Does it matter? Perhaps.
It would matter a lot more if appeals to class and race were unique to Biden and the Democrats. But race, while not the overriding factor it once was in American politics, has not been banished from the public arena. Sometimes it’s merely introduced in more subtle ways.
Take a Romney television ad that popped up just last week. Called “Long History,” the ad introduces an old conservative fire-starter about liberals wanting to go easy on welfare slouches.
The ad correctly said that Obama had objections to the 1990s welfare reform. But it also contends that “Obama quietly ended work requirements for welfare. You wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job.” But the president's policy did not end the work requirement. The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Factcheck.org called that claim “simply not true.” The Obama administration policy turns the question over to the states to decide what work requirements should be maintained. That’s the kind of unshackling of state governments that conservatives normally cheer.
So where’s the racial angle in the ad? None is overt. But there is a long history in conservative politics of invoking the welfare slouch. Politico’s Roger Simon said he thought he heard a “dog whistle” in the Romney ad. "A black president,” Simon said, “now is saying minorities don't have to work for their welfare checks, they just get it in the mail for sitting around watching TV."
Both sides obviously are rallying their bases for a long slog to November. History says that the appeals will not be subtle. And a little messaging via class and race divides cuts right to the heart.
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