In his acceptance speech upon winning the Florida Republican primary, Mitt Romney offered what has to be one of the most memorable and absurd comments of the political season so far.
“A competitive primary does not divide us,” said Romney, who spent roughly as much to lambaste Newt Gingrich as some cities spend in their annual budgets. “It prepares us. And we will win.”
It’s hard to know precisely what competitive primary Romney was following, but the fact of the matter is that during the nearly two-week campaign in Florida, he and Gingrich fashioned an atmosphere so breathtakingly poisonous in its divisiveness that it infected just about anything and anyone who came near it.
It’s hard to place the responsibility anywhere other than on the Republican candidates who came in first and second place in the vote in the Sunshine State. In Romney is the candidate who will say anything, shift any position and spend any sum to tear down an opponent. In Gingrich, is a candidate who will use any race-baiting appeal, hurl any insult and concoct any fabrication in order to gain an electoral advantage.
The poisonous theater of divisiveness was apparent at every turn, luring even the bit players who were waiting in the wings for just a minute of limelight. For example, there was Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who compared President Barack Obama’s performance with that of the captain of the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that crashed in Italy and killed 17 passengers.
Of course it is outrageous to compare the performance of the president of the United States with a commander of a ship who has been arrested and charged with manslaughter, but it also conveys a disturbing insensitivity to the families of the passengers who lost their lives in that catastrophe. In an atmosphere where Republican candidates will hurl any stinging insult at each other, what chance does the Democratic president have of avoiding being targeted for uncivil discourse?
To make matters, well, equally atrocious, the Florida primary produced the insanely mean-spirited outburst by Rep. Allen West. West, an African-American Republican from southern Florida, who complained that Obama and other Democratic leaders’ policies were unwelcome in Florida.
“Take your message of equality of achievement, take your message of economic dependency, take your message of enslaving the entrepreneurial will and spirit of the American people somewhere else,” West said. “Get the hell out of the United States of America.” Frankly, it’s hard not to wonder what on earth has prompted such burning hatred toward the president from this brother.
This is the atmosphere created by Republican candidates who have made it clear that they have no intention of retreating from their toxic tones. Even before the votes were fully counted in Florida, Romney had started his multimillion-dollar cavalcade of negative ads against Gingrich in other states. Gingrich, who highlighted his lack of grace by not making a concession call to Romney, insists that he has only begun to attack.
While the Democrats might feel encouraged by the Republican infighting, there is no cause for joy here. The Republican front-runners have already demonstrated that they have no inclination toward courtesy in their campaigns, particularly where Obama is concerned. The Republican primary in Florida has made clear that the country is in for a fall campaign that, whoever the nominee is, will leave no stone unturned in demonizing the nation’s first African-American president.
If the nominee is Romney, it’s clear that he will spend obscene sums of money to attack Obama, despite his own spotty record of failing to offer any sensible vision for the country. If it is Gingrich, we should be prepared for a campaign that will rival the presidential campaigns of George Wallace in its appeal to the fears and insensitivities of Southern white Americans. It is symbolic of how base and how low the level of political discourse has dropped in this country by politicians who are only too happy to stoke irrational fears in the age of Obama.
This week, Gingrich offered another racially coded criticism of Obama, calling him the “entertainer in chief.” This was a clear reference to the president’s performance of a line from the Al Green hit “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser in Harlem. But, in fact, it’s the Republican front-runners who need to start singing a different tune. As a nation, we deserve far better than the road show we’ve witnessed thus far.