Forecasting a Nasty 2012 Campaign

RightWatch: White rage and a dearth of new Republican ideas should result in a noxious and racially tinged campaign next year.

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As many a would-be prophet can attest, predicting the future is one surefire way of making yourself look ridiculous. When your prognostication goes wrong, the only ones who look sillier than you are those who believed in the forecast.

Take, for example, radio Bible thumper Harold Camping, who whipped legions of evangelical Christians into a frenzy by claiming that the rapture, in which the faithful would be literally spirited up into heaven, was going to take place last Saturday. Lo and behold, we -- and he -- are still here. But instead of curing Camping of being a seer, that seemingly incontrovertible piece of evidence only forced him to revise his schedule. He now says the end of the world will take place on Oct. 21, and I hope he is right.

That's because the coming of doomsday this fall would spare us what I boldly predict will be the nastiest, most racially charged presidential campaign in decades, perhaps even since the Civil War. That's not because the developing field of Republican candidates is a pack of rabid race-baiters. Indeed, so far only one of them, the inimitable Newton Leroy Gingrich, has descended into that gutter with his charge that Barack Obama is "the most successful food stamp president in American history."

Despite the GOP's long history of exploiting white fear for political gain, I doubt that the eventual nominee will make such a blatant racist appeal. He or she won't have to. Their surrogates or those in charge of supposedly independent expenditures will handle it for them. And it will simply be in the air.

My fearless forecast is not based on the personalities of the candidates but on what analysts call the objective factors: the underlying social context in which the campaign will unfold. And right now it's setting up as a perfect storm for racially charged resentment on the far right, even if the candidates make no overt attempt to exploit it. Here are three of my reasons, two pretty obvious and one less so:

* White people are really angry. According to a hugely publicized study by Tufts University researchers, a growing number of whites believe that race relations are a zero-sum game in which every inch of black progress is offset by an increase in discrimination against whites. Indeed, the researchers contend, many whites have now convinced themselves that bias against people like themselves is a bigger problem than anti-black prejudice. The most obvious symbol of black progress -- and of their own setbacks -- is none other than the man who will be at the top of the Democratic ticket next year: the first African-American president.

* The Republicans don't have winning issues. The triumph of Democrat Kathy Hochul this week in a special election in a historically conservative district in upstate New York underscores my belief that when right-leaning Republicans actually spell out what they stand for, independent voters flee in droves. In this case, the central issue was conservative budget guru Paul Ryan's radical plan for replacing Medicare with a voucher system that would force seniors to pay substantially more for their health care, which has been endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate.

In addition to defending that unpopular proposal, the Republican nominee will have no bold new ideas to push. The much ballyhooed job-creation plan that the GOP released this week is just more of the same-old, same-old combination of tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations and a pullback on regulation that got us into this economic mess. And with the death of Osama bin Laden, any attempt to paint Obama as a weak commander-in-chief chief will be an exercise in futility.

* Finally, Obama's critics on the left have opened the floodgates. One of the unintended consequences of Cornel West's impassioned recent attack on Obama is that by sinking into ad hominem claims about the president's character, he implicitly sanctioned the validity of similar charges from the right. There is not, after all, that much difference between accusing Obama of being afraid of "free black men" because he was reared by Caucasians, and bashing him for possessing a Kenyan anti-colonial view of the world that he supposedly got from his African daddy. How left-wing critics expect to combat right-wing efforts to paint Obama as an exotic outsider after they indulge in equivalent mudslinging is a conundrum that only a highbrow philosophy professor can resolve.

So there you have it: a conservative electoral base seething with anti-black resentment, combined with an unpopular platform and a de facto go-ahead from the left to portray Obama as some kind of alien. That's a witches' brew for what could easily spill over into a truly noxious explosion of racially tinged politicking, even if the eventual Republican standard-bearer never explicitly brings up the subject.

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