If Romney is ‘not one of us,’ who is this ‘us’?

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Inside the ultimate Beltway, everyone is talking about Ohio.

Which is why I am surprised at how The Washington Post has decided to play a very interesting political-ad story from that crucial swing state. Of course, the Post team also deserves some credit for publishing the story in the first place, even if the A4 location, with no art, is a bit on the strange side given the report’s explosive content. By the way, where is The New York Times on the story? Have I missed something? Just asking.

Here’s the crucial question, for me: When it comes to Mitt Romney, the public figure, which factors dominate his public image? First and foremost, are we talking about race, social class or, well, religion?

So here’s the top of the Post report, which opens with a direct quote lede:

“Mitt Romney. Not one of us.”

That’s the tag line to a tough new ad that the Obama campaign is airing in Ohio. But ironically, it echoes a slogan that has been used as a racial code over at least the past half-century.

The context of the Obama ad is very different from some others, in which the phrase “one of us” was used to divide voters along racial lines, but conservative commentators have quickly seized on it.

President Obama’s critics said the fact that he would use such loaded language in the hard-fought Ohio race shows how much he has changed since his famous “one America” speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, in which he denounced “those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.”

The key, of course, is the meaning of the term “us” in the advertisement. So, who is this “us” crowd?

The story makes it clear — accurately — that the text of this ad (shown above) focuses on economic issues in the hard-hit Ohio economy. At the same time, the Post story notes the long and ugly racial history of this “not one of us” slogan in American politics. This is explosive stuff, in a campaign that has racial and class-warfare overtones.

Yet, what about religion? Surely the creators of the ad knew that — on the religious and secular left and among African-Americans — Romney’s leadership role in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a hot-button topic. The minute I saw this headline, I wondered how long it would take the Post team to ask if the Obama team was playing the Mormon card.

More than half-way into the story, there is this:

Obama, the nation’s first black president, has himself been a target of insinuations of otherness, including false but widely circulated suggestions that he was not born in this country and that he is a Muslim. During this presidential campaign, his allies say, they have seen racial coding in accusations that Obama is a “food stamp president” and in popular tea party slogans such as “Take back our country.”

Romney has faced mistrust and prejudice as well, regarding his Mormon faith.

Other than this reference, the entire story focuses on the history of “not one of us” being used as racial code language.

That is, in fact, the old news angle on that phrase. The question for the current news cycle is different: If this slogan is not, in this case, a reference to race — which would be highly unlikely — then how is the term “us” being used this time around? Try to imagine the vehemence with which this question would have been explored if the Romney team had used this slogan in swing states such as Colorado or Virginia.

So, kudos to the Post team for having the courage to run this story, even if it’s on A4 without art. At the same time, I’d like to ask why the Mormon card angle isn’t in the lede, along with the class-warfare angle that actually dominates the ad text? Why bury the religion angle? Who focus on the old story from the past, rather than what appears to be the actual story in this campaign?

This is not quite a “religion ghost” story. It was a close call, however. Too close, for my news tastes.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Karen W

    I think in this case, “not one of us” really does mean economically, and can’t be stretched to imply anything about Romney’s Mormonism.

  • SK

    Agreed Karen W.


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