FIELDS: Short-circuiting the new third rail

Romney’s equanimity is best insulation against racism charge

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Race  has become the third rail of American politics. Touch it and you die.  It’s the rail on which some of our angriest Democrats want to ride Mitt  Romney and the Republicans out of town.
The  word “racist” is the new shorthand for “evil,” replacing “Hitler” as  the all-purpose condemnation those with stunted imaginations throw at  their opponents and enemies. Not so long ago, racism was a crime so  heinous that merely to be accused of it was all the proof needed for  conviction. Racism and bearing false witness are still heinous but, like  “Hitler,” they are losing some of their sting through reckless use.

In  the overheated anger of some Democratic partisans, Mr. Romney has  become the personification of racism. There’s not a shred of evidence  that the presumptive Republican nominee is a racist, a bigot, a zealot  or even a fanatic. His tone of moderation and quiet sobriety (as befits a  proper Mormon) frustrates many of his supporters, who want him to  toughen up and get mean on the stump.

But  here’s how a columnist for Rolling Stone magazine describes him: “[He]  is not merely unlikable, and not merely a fatuous, unoriginal hack of a  politician, but also a genuinely repugnant human being, a grasping  corporate hypocrite with so little feel for how to get along with people  that he has to dream up elaborate schemes just to try to pander to the  mob.”

The  columnist, Matt Taibbi, is angry because the campaign is so uncivil.  What provoked his tantrum was Mr. Romney’s speech to the Houston  convention of the NAACP — one of his best speeches of the young season —  when he spoke bluntly, plainly and respectfully of his differences with  black Democrats. What specifically provoked the writer was Mr. Romney’s  remarks about the Houston speech the next day to “a mostly white  audience in Montana.”

“I  gave the NAACP the same speech I’m giving you,” Mr. Romney told the  Montana audience. “When I mentioned [in Houston] that I am going to get  rid of Obamacare, they weren’t happy. That’s OK, I want people to know  what I stand for, and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for  someone else. That’s just fine. But I hope people understand this; if  they want more stuff from the government, go vote for the other guy.”
Mr.  Romney was booed enthusiastically in Houston, as has been reported  widely, but not by everyone in the audience. He was cheered for some of  the things he said, notably his affirmation of familiar religious and  moral values, and he received a standing ovation when he finished his  speech.

The  unexpected problem for the uglies on the left is that neither Mr.  Romney nor Republicans and other conservatives are acting like  Republicans and conservatives are “supposed to act.” They’re not  following their assigned roles in the script with harsh language and  unyielding prejudices, reflecting what has happened everywhere. The  N-word, for example, has been long banished from the conversation, at  least in public, by nearly everyone.

Sometimes  the “racism” ascribed to conservatives is so subtle that no one but the  accuser could recognize it. Recent observations that the president  looks ‘”skinny” is supposed to be racist code for a type who is “good at  basketball.” Mocking the former law professor is said to be code for  “uppity.” Any criticism or observation from certain quarters is code for  racist.

The  fact is that it’s the Republicans who have blazed the way for greater  acceptance of blacks in high office. George W. Bush appointed Colin L.  Powell as his first secretary of state — the first black to hold such  high office in America — and when he departed, he was replaced by  Condoleezza Rice. In the Republican presidential primaries earlier this  year, Herman Cain, a relatively obscure black businessman, unexpectedly  prospered and briefly led in the polls.

Peggy  Noonan, a speechwriter for two Republican presidents and a columnist  for the Wall Street Journal, tells of making a speech the other day to a  group of businessmen, no doubt with a generous sprinkling of  conservatives and Republicans. When the conversation turned to Mr.  Romney’s prospective vice-presidential choices, “I spoke of a few, and  then said Condoleezza Rice might be a brilliant choice. Here spontaneous  applause burst forth.”

Indeed,  it was such good will that fueled the unlikely Condi boomlet despite  Miss Rice’s well-known social and foreign-policy disagreements with  conservatives — none of them about race — that would make her a  calamitous choice for Mitt Romney, who has yet to fully reassure  conservatives that he really and truly is one of them.

Nevertheless,  Condi support speaks volumes about where we are and how far we’ve come  in so short a time. It will be something to think about when the  campaign gets ugly and Democrats and Republicans start throwing kitchen  sinks at each other.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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