The issue of taxes is the Republican Party’s dog whistle on race. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan–engaged in a nail-biting political fight–have resorted to blowing it loudly and unashamedly. Combined with their new drumbeat on welfare–which amplifies race-signaling on taxes–their approach could work. No doubt Romney will be wielding that whistle tonight. If GOP history is any guide, he’ll use it to conduct an "us vs. them" conversation without using explicit racial terms.
The target is white women. According to Gallup, white men are already largely pro-Romney by a whopping 26 percentage points. With the GOP having alienated half of the electorate in its year-long War on Women–reignited last week by Todd Akin–Romney’s lead amongst white women is three times smaller at 8 percent.
Obama has a tremendous advantage amongst people of color. The only way that Romney can overcome it is to get his support amongst white women into the double digits. The campaign surely knows it and seems to have concluded that racial wedge issues are the surest way to get ahead. Neck and neck in what should be a runaway election year for the GOP, given the state of the economy, Romney and Ryan are paving their road to the White House with racial animosity.
But the one-two punch of taxes and welfare to transmit race signals is not new. Ronald Reagan did so with devastating effect in 1980. He coasted to reelection four years later. Romney is merely bringing the party back to where it started 30 years ago.
Romney’s Problem with Whites
Romney is not favored by enough white voters right now to win in November.
As Andrew Romano reports in The Daily Beast, "Romney’s white support currently lingers in the low 50s. This would have been bad news for a Republican 25 years ago; in 2012 it could be fateful."
As people of color have become a larger share of the electorate, Republicans have had to do better amongst blacks and Latinos–especially in key swing states–in order occupy the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The problem is that Romney has rock-bottom support in black and brown America. Amongst African Americans he’s polling at zero percent. His support amongst Latinos is at 33 percent. In order to overcome these low numbers amongst, Romney has to run up his numbers amongst whites.
But whites are not enamored with Romney. Uncertainty surrounding his payment of taxes, queasiness over his treatment of workers while he was CEO of Bain Capital, his general "Richie Rich" image, and hist party’s frat-like focus on women’s bodies have kept Romney’s numbers lower than where he needs them to be. According to the National Journal’s Ronald Bernstein, Romney has to capture 61 percent of the white vote to win. He’s nine points below that.
That’s why Romney has opted to racialize the contest for the White House.
Republicans use the issue of taxes to explain away falling incomes and fewer opportunities for advancement amongst middle and working class whites. All middle class and working class Americans are under pressure, ironically from many of the policies that Republicans promote, but this is an argument designed to garner the votes of a specific constituency.
In this ahistorical, "us vs. them" view of America’s past, taxes are the source of reverse-race unfairness; an unfairness that grew as a result of programs to promote racial and economic justice in the 1960s. This view holds that taxes take from the hardworking and give to the underserving. Welfare, a program inaccurately seen as fostering sloth amongst black and brown Americans, is Exhibit A for everything that’s gone wrong. The fact that these caricatures are grounded in 500 years of racial stereotypes is what makes them so potent.
Taxpayers vs. Welfare Queens
Ronald Reagan used taxes and welfare to stoke racial tension right from the beginning of his bid for the presidency.
Reagan marked the official start of his post-convention campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Neshoba County is where three civil rights workers where slain in an infamous killing by the Klu Klux Klan only 16 years earlier. In his speech, after championing "states rights" at length, the first topic that Reagan touched upon was taxes. "I’m going to try … to change federal regulations in the tax structure … and put us back where we belong," Reagan said.
As Bob Herbert of the New York Times said of Reagan’s Mississippi talk, "He was tapping out code."
As an example of the way in which the government funded the undeserving through taxes, Reagan consistently referred to welfare. He invented "the welfare queen" to do so. "There’s a woman in Chicago. … She has 80 names … and is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000," Reagan declared. The story was not true. It was never substantiated. But it didn’t matter.
"Like in any good mythology, you need heroes and villains and in the Welfare Queen, you had a villain who was taking advantage of the system," former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, Craig Smith, told CNN.
In 1980, Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in a landslide. With the "welfare queen" exemplifying the reverse-racism unfairness of taxes, he rewrote America’s tax code.
But Reagan’s tax policies were not aimed at the middle or working class. He lowered taxes on investment income, which benefit the wealthy, and effectively raised taxes on workers. Taxes on capital gains, basically money earned off of money, sunk to their lowest level in 50 years. The top income tax rate for the rich dropped as well. But rates for the working poor and lower middle class rose by almost 50 percent.
The longterm impact of Reagan’s policies were a disaster for the vast majority Americans.
Since 1980, the top 5 percent have gathered a greater share of national wealth than at almost any point in history, wages for average Americans have stagnated, and poverty has soared. And his tax break on Wall Street investments sent America’s financial sector off to the races. The imbalance that was created as a result finally cratered our economy in 2008. We haven’t recovered yet.
America also never recovered from the racialization of government support for economic fairness. Since Reagan, a majority of those elected to the White House have used a version of his formula to get there.
His successor George H. W. Bush won by doubling down on Reagan’s tax and welfare approach, and coupling them with the issue of violent crime. With this, Bush achieved a race trifecta.
In 1992, Bill Clinton took taxes and welfare away from Republicans by proposing "middle class tax cuts" and promising to "end welfare as we know it."
In 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole sought to attack Clinton on welfare by saying that his reforms didn’t go far enough. Clinton outflanked him by terminating welfare. He won a second term. Welfare, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, is a shadow of its former self.
George W. Bush deviated from his predecessors. Conscious of the way race marked his father’s election, Bush ran on "compassionate conservatism." His broader tax cuts would go on to help wreck the economy, but in all fairness, Bush’s tax talk was far less racialized than Reagan’s, his father’s or even Clinton’s. Bush successfully championed a significant expansion in the Earned Income Tax Credit, which zeros out the tax burden for a large swath of the working poor.
Romney, however, is taking the Republican Party back to Reagan’s political origins.
Romney’s Tax Wedge
Romney wants to keep all of the Bush tax cuts, lower those rates an additional 20 percent, eliminate the estate tax for inheritances over $5 million, and slash the tax rate for corporations by 30 percent.
Like Reagan, these proposals are less about economics than they are about creating an "us vs. them" political wedge. Romney told the Detroit Economic Club earlier this year, "I [have] put forward pro-growth tax reforms that will get our economy moving again. … This administration is focused on extending unemployment benefits."
Ryan’s budget echoes Romney’s themes. In it he cites a "culture of dependency" which "unfolded in the Great Society programs of the 1960s."
Ryan believes that "progressive ideology" will turn American into a "welfare-state … where tax reduction is impossible because more people have a stake in the welfare state than in free enterprise." It exhorts America to avoid the "tipping point" by slashing taxes and rolling back programs that promote economic and racial fairness.
Romney and Ryan’s tax proposals work in tandem with their resurrection of welfare as a campaign issue.
Earlier this month, the Romney campaign released an ad claiming that President Obama "quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements." "Under Obama’s plan … they just send you your welfare check, " the ad also claims.
The New York Times editorial board called it, "Blatantly false." Every other major news outlet has joined them in calling it so. Undeterred, Romney released a new ad parroting the lie. Moreover, the program that he says Obama is using to end the welfare-to-work requirement is one he sought to use as governor of Massachusetts.
But these facts don’t matter; what you can make people believe is more important than what actually happened. In this, Romney is truly shadowing Reagan. Ominously for our future, it might do the trick for Romney’s problem with white voters as well. As Mark Twain said, "History may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme."
Imara Jones writes about economic justice for Colorlines.com.