Van Jones Calls Romney ‘Obama Isn’t Working’ Campaign Slogan A ‘Racial Dog Whistle’


A few months ago, I noted on these pages that Mitt Romney’s newly-prominent “Obama Isn’t Working” campaign slogan carried unfortunate racial connotations that, while obvious, were likely unintentional. Conservative website The Blaze reports that, in a web chat on Friday, former Obama advisor Van Jones leveled the criticism more pointedly, calling Romney’s slogan a “racial dog whistle,” as opposed to a “fire alarm” that could make “even the right-wing base uncomfortable.”

The Romney campaign’s “Obama Isn’t Working” slogan, which was quietly announced last June as an homage to Margaret Thatcher, but wasn’t put to prominent use until April, found staunch defenders among the ranks of conservative media figures, who predictably denounced recognition of racial stereotyping as being “racist,” a kind of “Why are you hitting yourself?” logic for the race-denying right. While the racial subtext of the slogan was obvious to many, including Fox News’ Bob Beckel, cable news contributor Goldie Taylor, and myself, most everyone tended to give the Romney campaign the benefit of the doubt that this was unintentional, a case of insensitivity, rather than malice.

However, former Obama administration “Green Jobs Czar” Van Jones put a finer point on this criticism in a web chat on Friday: (via The Blaze)

2:51 Van Jones: I think racial fire alarms make even the right-wing base uncomfortable. Look for racial “dog whistles” like “Obama Is Not Working.”

2:52 Ari Berman: dog whistles > fire alarms

2:52 Van Jones: That Romney slogan – which his camp already uses – strikes a lot of people as a kind of code for “lazy, incompetent, affirmative action baby.”

Jones’ criticism of the slogan as a “dog whistle” implies the intentional use of racial coding to attract voters receptive to that kind of messaging, while giving yourself enough cover that others who are inclined to ignore or deny the messaging can do so.

In April, I was inclined to give the Romney campaign the benefit of the doubt, but even then, noticed a disturbing pattern emerging in the right-wing ethers surrounding Romney. Since then, there have been several other revelations about race-based strategies, and at least one prominent conservative pundit,’s Dana Loesch, who is willing to admit (even boast) that Romney’s “outrage” about these attacks is feigned:

In the meantime, Romney knows surrogates will attack on Wright, and Obama looks bad for targeting Romney donors on official site.

Romney doesn’t campaign like McCain. McCain was vanilla public and private. Were people sleeping during primaries?

This is Romney. He can campaign derrrrty. Hello, primaries? Acting outraged just follows plan.

Romney is playing good cop to PACs bad cop. Strategy that will give him an edge. Unconventional, frustrated at first glance.

Romney is also dancing a race-baiting two-step with Birther-in-Chief Donald Trump, while others in the conservative blogosphere, with whom Romney held a secret meeting several weeks ago, have launched several attacks on President Obama designed to emphasize (and smear) his Kenyan heritage. That Kenyan heritage (the President’s biological father, whom he met once, was a Kenyan national) also happens to be the subject of billionaire Joe Ricketts‘ next anti-Obama investment, after significant backlash forced him to abandon his plan to attack the President using Rev. Wright.

There were some who suggested that the Romney campaign’s “Thatcher homage” explanation somehow inoculates them from the slogan’s racial subtext, but that’s a faulty premise. For example, if you wanted to put out the message that Campbell Brown is a good journalist, you might immediately think of an homage to Campbell’s soup, and come up with “Campbell Brown Is Mmm, Mmm Good,” but someone in your production meetings would point out that the sexist subtext would overshadow the intended message. If you decided to go with it anyway, publishing a detailed explanation of the slogan’s awesome genesis, long before you intended to use it, would be a handy fig leaf.

My willingness to give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt is irrelevant, however. The bottom line is that no one knows what’s in Mitt Romney’s heart, and the mainstream media has shown little inclination to ask. At the very least, though, Gov. Romney has demonstrated that, just as he sat for 31 years as an organization he belonged to and supported discriminated against black men as a matter of policy, he has little inclination to put a stop to any of this. With a strong majority of the voting public, and most of the mainstream media, invested in ignoring it, there’s little incentive for him to do so.

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