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George W. Bush Never Played the Race Card. That Hasn’t Stopped Mitt Romney.

Has Mitt Romney been playing the race card by suggesting, falsely, that President Obama gutted the work requirements in welfare? By approving ads telling seniors Obama took “your money” and spent it on a program for “somebody else”? By making a joke about Obama’s birth certificate?

If it was just one incident or one line of attack, I wouldn’t assume the worst. But considered collectively, and alongside reports about a campaign playing up cultural themes, it’s impossible to assume the best. Read some of Alec’s dispatches, or yesterday’s analysis from Tom Edsall in the New York Times, if you need more convincing. At the very least, Romney is running the most deliberately divisive campaign in recent memory, whether it’s by pitting “makers” versus “takers” or whites versus non-whites or by developing a fuzzy, strategically advantageous blend of the two.

My colleague Tim Noah calls this the ugliest campaign he’s seen since 1988, when George H.W. Bush famously turned Willie Horton, an African-American murder who committed rape while on prison furlough, into a symbol of liberal permissiveness. I think Tim is right. But an equally interesting comparison is to another Bush presidential campaign, one that largely eschewed those tactics. I’m speaking of the son—George W. Bush.

It’s easy to forget now, but Bush ran in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative.” Some of us found the posture preposterous. As governor of Texas, he had turned down federal funds to make health insurance available to poor children. (Where do you think Rick Perry learned the trick?) More important, Bush's campaign agenda called for giving massive tax cuts for the rich, in ways that would (and did) inevitably starve the government of resources for programs helping low-income people. But Bush famously vowed that “I’m a uniter, not a divider.” When it came to rhetoric and symbolism, at least, he was mostly good to his word.

Bush didn’t tap into racial resentment, except for some truly ugly attacks surrogates made on John McCain in South Carolina during the primaries. But he did appoint the first (and then the second) African-American to serve as Secretary of State, arguably the most important cabinet position in the country. Bush also bent over backwards to court the Latino community, something he’d done throughout his career in state politics, and issued persistent, if futile, calls for humane immigration reform. Bush’s tolerance extended to religion, too. After 9/11, it would have been easy to demonize Muslims and quite a few conservatives did. Bush did the opposite, going out of his way to preach tolerance and praise Islam as a peaceful religion. On a few occasions, Bush even said some nice things about atheists, which is sadly rare in American politics. About the only exception during the Bush presidency was the matter of sexual orientation. In the 2004 election, when gay marriage was an issue, Bush didn't exactly disavow attacks playing into homophobia.

Gestures are not a substitute for policy. The botched reaction to Hurricane Katrina led to enormous suffering among African-Americans who lived in the Gulf region. But I’ve always assumed that was more incompetence than bias—and that his assault on low-income programs reflected a genuine, if naive and convenient, belief that private charity could fully take its place. Besides, any fair accounting of the Bush legacy must include his campaign to fight HIV abroad, a politically useless endeavor that saved millions of African lives and very much reflected Bush’s personal commitment to the cause.

Not that Bush lacked political incentives to promote himself as a more tolerant brand of Republican. His top adviser, Karl Rove, understood the demographic reality—that creating a new, lasting majority would require making inroads among Latinos. He also understood that outreach to non-whites could convince upper-middle-class white voters that Bush was a decent guy. The Bush campaign and later the Bush White House made a point of putting him in front of African-American audiences, not so much to make a pitch to those voters as to produce an image that would play well in the suburbs.

The Romney campaign has obviously decided on a different strategy and perhaps that reflects nothing more than a different political calculation. Bush was running against a white guy at a time when jobs were plentiful. Romney is running against a black guy at a time when jobs are scarce. You don’t need to be a seasoned strategist to realize the latter environment is more hospitable to attacks that play upon racial resentment. It’s also possible the GOP's strategic goal has changed. As Jonathan Chait has suggested, Republicans may see 2012 as their final chance to enact a far right agenda, and cripple the welfare state. Winning today may count a lot more than winning tomorrow.

But the change in tenor could also reflect a change in character, as in the character of the men running for president. Maybe I’m just a sap, but I always thought Bush took the “compassion” talk seriously. I don't know why. My uninformed, not-worth-a-nickel psychological theory was that it came from his experience with alcohol and sincere acceptance of evangelicalism’s teachings. Whatever the explanation, Bush seemed to have a strong sense of right and wrong that superseded political expediency. And exploiting difference—racial, ethnic, religious—very clearly fell into the category of wrong.

If Romney feels the same way, he hasn’t shown it. He seems like a perfectly decent guy, without a bone of racial or ethnic animus in his body. But he also seems willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if that means tapping into ugly sentiments. Say what you will about George W. Bush, and I’ve said plenty, but that’s one choice he usually declined to make.

Update: Reader Tim Tagaris reminds me, on Twitter, about the ugly racial attacks that Bush supporters made on John McCain’s adopted child before the South Carolina primary. And the Washington Post’s James Downie reminded me about homophobia in the 2004 election. They are right and I’ve updated the item to reflect that.

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