If you had any doubt that the myopic obsession with “dog whistles” and divining racial animus out of everyday language that MSNBC’s commentators succumbed to during the 2012 election was a mania shared by the President of the United States, that uncertainty was erased on Wednesday.
“This is ‘welfare queen’-lite. You don’t even have to say it,” MSNBC host Chris Matthews averred while covering the Republican National Convention in the summer of that election year. “All you have to say is ‘urban.’”
“They keep saying ‘Chicago,’ by the way, have you noticed?” He added, intimating without much subtlety the sinister intention behind the invocation of the Windy City.
“There’s a lot of black people in Chicago.” Game Change co-author John Heilemann helpfully decoded.
This obscene conflation of a word identifying city dwellers with racial demography was apparently a misapprehension shared by President Barack Obama. In a forthcoming memoir from former senior White House advisor David Axelrod, Obama was apparently irked by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s invocation of urban voters during his concession call. Obama employed all his powers of racial decoding in order to deduce Romney’s poorly disguised racial intentions.
In “Believer: My 40 Years in Politics,” former senior Obama adviser David Axelrod writes that the GOP candidate implied on the call that Obama had won because of his popularity in black communities, according to the New York Daily News, which acquired an advance copy of the book.
Obama was “unsmiling during the call, and slightly irritated when it was over,” according to Axelrod.
“‘You really did a great job of getting out the vote in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee,’ in other words, black people. That’s what he thinks this was all about,” Obama said after he hung up with Romney.
Maybe what Romney really meant was precisely what he said: That the Obama campaign did a spectacular job of turning out the members of its 2008 coalition, many of whom lived in urban and suburban communities. In fact, in the specific communities he referred to, Cleveland and Milwaukee, African-Americans are not dramatically overrepresented.
According to the 2010 census, black or African-American residents made up 53 percent of the population of Cleveland (the home of the 2016 Republican National Convention, by the way). Whites made up 37 percent of the city’s residents. In Milwaukee, blacks are a minority. Only 27 percent of the population is of African descent while 65 percent is white.
Not only was the president’s instinct to accuse Romney of a subtle racial jab paranoid and conspiratorial, but his understanding of the demography of these urban centers was also entirely confused.
That has not stopped MSNBC’s hosts and commentators from echoing Obama’s charge. When Republicans use the word “urban,” the network’s personalities frequently insisted, they really meant minorities.
“There’s more of this dog-whistle crap going on,” Chris Matthews said a week after the president’s reelection. He noted that former vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) confessed that the Romney campaign was surprised by “some of the turnout in urban areas.”
“Why did he have to go step on his own headline ‘They won fair and square’ by saying, ‘Oh it was the black vote?'” Matthews asked. “Basically, that’s what he was saying.”
That’s conspiratorial thinking worthy of an Oliver Stone screenplay, and it should be terrifyingly shocking that the President of the United States apparently shares this conviction.
It wasn’t merely Obama’s allies in the press, but his surrogates, like Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Attorney General Eric Holder, who so frequently inflamed racial tensions as part of the scorched earth campaign to win Obama a second term in the White House. The president was, however, able to plausibly deny that he had any role in exacerbating racial tensions for electoral gain. This admission from Axelrod lets the veil slip. At the very least, it is logical to conclude from this revelation that Obama condoned the casual racial agitation in which so many of his supporters engaged.
UPDATE: Via CBS News, the Romney camp denies that basically anything that Axelrod said happened occurred the way he remembered it.
[Romney aide Garrett] Jackson said Romney told Mr. Obama, “Mr. President, I want to congratulate you and your team on a hard-fought race and your victory…There are a lot of tough issues facing the country…and I hope you tackle those tough issues.”
That last line is the one Jackson said may have rubbed the president the wrong way. But he said the call was short, contained no specifics about Cleveland, Milwaukee, or any other city- or county-level results. “I know for a fact” that Romney didn’t have that level of detail about the election returns, Jackson said.
Romney also said, “I’m happy to help in any way,” and “Ann and I will pray for you daily; you have a tough job ahead,” according to Jackson.
This actually makes more sense. Why would Romney be personally following the results in municipalities that he was certain to lose when bellwether counties in these states were already painting a clear picture that the election was lost? I suppose it is possible, but Jackson’s recounting of a boilerplate concession call from Romney seems more likely.