Saletan: Is Mitt Romney appealing to bigots?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. (Aug. 13, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

Why do liberals keep accusing Mitt Romney of playing on bigotry?

First they made a fuss when Romney said several times that President Barack Obama "doesn't understand America." Then they got upset when Romney said that he, unlike Obama, would "keep America America." They said "Keep America American" was an old Ku Klux Klan slogan. But Romney didn't say "Keep America American." He said "Keep America America." Anyway, he was talking about culture, not ethnicity.

Then liberals complained when Romney's son Matt made a crack about Obama's citizenship. At a campaign event in New Hampshire, somebody asked whether Romney would release his tax returns. Matt Romney answered: "I heard someone suggest the other day that as soon as President Obama releases his grades and birth certificate ... then maybe he'll do it."


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Matt later apologized on Twitter: "I repeated a dumb joke. My bad."

Liberals practically blew a gasket when Romney's campaign co-chairman John Sununu said Obama had "no idea how the American system functions ... because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia, another set of years in Indonesia ..."

They thought Sununu was making some kind of appeal to xenophobia. Give me a break. Sununu was just talking about the free market. And he meant the same thing when he said later on a Romney campaign conference call, "I wish this president would learn how to be an American."

Then liberals cried foul when Romney said at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania that Obama was "changing the nature of America" and that "his course is extraordinarily foreign."

They thought foreign was a deliberate dig. Ridiculous. It was totally spontaneous. Just like it was a few minutes later, when Romney said Obama's agenda was "foreign to us. It changes America." And again the next day, when Romney said Obama's worldview was "so foreign to us." And again five days later, when Romney called Obama's philosophy "very strange and in some respects foreign to the American experience." And again four days after that, when Romney accused Obama of harboring "a foreign idea."

Then the left got its knickers in a twist when, on the eve of Romney's trip to the United Kingdom, Israel and Poland, several Romney advisers spoke with the Telegraph, a British newspaper. According to the paper, one adviser said of the U.S. and U.K., "We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he [Romney] feels that the special relationship is special. ... The White House didn't fully appreciate the shared history we have."

Liberals thought this was a reference to Obama not being Anglo. Romney set them straight. "I don't agree with whoever that adviser might be," he said when NBC's Brian Williams asked about the comment. "But [I] do agree that we have a very common bond between ourselves and Great Britain."

Romney went on to Israel and Poland, turning both countries into campaign ads. Each ad opened with the question: "Who shares your values?" One ad, supposedly an appeal to evangelicals, showed Romney at biblical sites and noted: "As president, Barack Obama has never visited Israel." The other ad linked Romney to Pope John Paul II and said, "President Obama used his health care plan to declare war on religion." But the Anglo-Saxon leg of the trip was never conceived with such a cultural wedge in mind. To suggest otherwise would be outrageous.

In fact, according to the Romney campaign, the Anglo-Saxon comment was "a false quote." Romney would never welcome an adviser who said such things. It's true that earlier this year, Romney praised former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and made him an official adviser after Bolton gave this speech at a rally of anti-Muslim groups in New York: "As we remember and honor the victims and families of the 9/11 tragedy, it's with that in mind that we have to view the proposal to build the Ground Zero mosque. It's a very strange enterprise that says we want to increase religious tolerance and understanding, and if you don't agree with that, we're going to increase religious tolerance and understanding whether you like it or not. ... People are entirely justified in raising questions what the true motives of the mosque's proponents really are. And if there's an effort really, at bottom, with people of good will, to increase religious tolerance and understanding, then a way can be found to do that that doesn't cause the emotional pain that this particular location proposed for the mosque has aroused."

But contrary to left-wing critics, Bolton's speech wasn't a demagogic play on fear of Muslims. It was just an appeal for sensitivity to non-Muslims. And when Bolton later defended a proposed investigation of Muslims in the U.S. government, his sole concern was national security. That's why Romney declined to comment on the proposed investigation and continues to use Bolton as a campaign surrogate.

Now the left is worked up over a joke Romney told on Friday. At a campaign stop with his wife in Michigan, he quipped, "No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised."

Liberals went nuts. Scott Pelley of CBS told Romney it was "a swipe at the president." Romney had to calm him down. "This was fun about us and coming home," Romney explained, showing none of the embarrassment that had driven his son to apologize for passing along a birther joke several months earlier. "We've got to have a little humor in a campaign."

Everything Romney and his surrogates say about Obama gets treated as some kind of offense. Not understanding America. Not knowing how to be an American. Growing up in Indonesia. Thinking like a foreigner. Declaring war on our religion. Not sharing our values. Not appreciating our Anglo-Saxon heritage. Not investigating Muslims. Not having a trusted birth certificate. It's gotten to the point where Romney can't open his mouth without somebody misconstruing his motives. Poor guy.

Writer William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.com.

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