By many accounts, the American electorate has become more polarized during the 2012 presidential contest, with race forming one of the many fault-lines dividing voters. We decided to look at what might happen to race relations in America under a second Obama term, versus a Mitt Romney administration, in a package that is also being published by our sister publication, The Root DC. Below is the Romney scenario. The Obama scenario is here. No matter which candidate wins, the very identity of the next man to step into the Oval Office will affect how Americans — and the world — view our progress toward better race relations.
(The Root) — Considering Mitt Romney's well-earned reputation for having a somewhat casual relationship with the details of his past statements and political positions, the story he told five years ago on Meet the Press — that in 1978 he pulled over to the side of the road and "literally wept" after hearing on his car radio that his church had extended its lay priesthood to black men — seems a tad gauzy.
You could, after all, conclude that Romney's a guy who harbors no prejudice toward African Americans and still feel like his version of events is a bit melodramatic.
If that's how it happened, though, it's a glimpse at how Romney could shape American race relations if he's elected president. Clearly, Romney prefers to be seen as the guy who pulled over to the side of the road — and not the guy who blithely wrote off the "47 percent" and joked about how as a presidential candidate, "it would be helpful to be Latino" when he thought he was behind closed doors.
And with a recent Associated Press study revealing that Americans feel slightly worse about race relations since Barack Obama was elected four years ago, Romney — a businessman attuned to untapped potential — could choose to view this as an opportunity.
The question, though, is would he treat it that way?
Romney would succeed a president who still has the overwhelming support of black, Latino and Asian-American voters. And to recast himself as a uniter — instead of the divider who's disingenuously castigated Obama as a "failure" — he'd be challenged to remodel the GOP as a party hoping to expand its mostly white base and figure out how to be the "postracial" leader that Obama's opponents claim the president has failed to become.
Because, contrary to legend, Obama never promised a "postracial" America, but as president, he passed a more important test, whether or not you agree with his policy priorities: He has governed with all Americans' interests in mind, despite the skepticism of those who expected him to advance a black agenda.
By contrast, Romney hasn't explicitly promised to return to 1950s America, but with his preference for throwback vernacular like "gosh" and "golly," his spontaneous renditions of "America the Beautiful" on the campaign trail, his Mad Men-era hair and his corporate pedigree, Romney implies that he'll return America to a past that no longer exists. And his task would be matching his professed vision of a more culturally rigid, more fiscally austere administration with the "postwhite" America that actually exists — in which the first black president's portrait hangs on the White House wall and Latinos begin to take over from African Americans as the minority group of record.
But if he so chooses, future President Romney could have a positive impact on race relations and improve his own standing if, like Obama, he governs as president of all the people. There are three things he'd have to do:
Change the Tone
Last week, former White House Chief of Staff and current Romney campaign adviser John Sununu alleged that retired Gen. Colin Powell only endorsed Obama's candidacy because of race — and Romney said nothing.
It's one of many chances he's had — but passed on — to brush back divisive racial rhetoric from his side of the aisle and demonstrate that he can call issues fairly and squarely. And if he never does, he'll squander GOP hopes of making inroads with voters of color, whom Republicans, and Romney, need for re-election in 2016. But in the same way that Obama, as a black president, abstained from weighing in on race issues for a three-year period between the "beer summit" and the Trayvon Martin tragedy, Romney may have to do the opposite — honestly and openly confronting the trust gap between his party and minorities.
Discuss His Faith
And it sounds obvious, but while Romney has remained an active practitioner of his Mormon faith, he's also studiously avoided discussing it as a candidate — which may have been a mistake — since his religion could provide a backdrop for explaining what he loves about America, what motivates him as a leader and how he sees himself as part of a thriving, but frequently misunderstood, minority group in our society.
Play It Fair
But most importantly, if Romney tackles the looming issues of government spending and debt, he has to spread the pain around evenly.
If he repeals Obamacare and cuts other social spending but at the same time proceeds with overfunding the Defense Department, fails to make corresponding budget cuts for ethanol subsidies and leaves in place tax policies that favor wealthier Americans over middle- and working-class Americans — government goodies that fewer minorities will benefit from — he'll reinforce the belief that he favors the interests of some Americans over others.
If, instead Romney offers an honest test of the conservative thesis that a smaller government ideology and approach benefits everyone, then whether or not he succeeds at reducing the national debt, he'll have stood up for the principle that Americans are all in this together.
Obama is the first black president, but a President Romney would be another kind of first — the first white president to come after the first black president. Everything he'd do would be judged by whether or not he met President Obama's standard. And if Romney wins, he'll have a chance to show that he wants to be everyone's president. We'll soon know if he gets that chance.
Then we'll find out what he does with it.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root and blogs for the New York Daily News' "The Rumble." Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.