Mitt Romney's adverts may be subtle, but they're still making the bogus point that Barack Obama is not a "real American."
Tarring Obama as the 'other' obscures Republican failings
The Republican presidential challenger, Mitt Romney, was given credit last week for refusing to endorse a proposed ad campaign that sought to link US President Barack Obama with the controversial sermons delivered by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. In doing so, Mr Romney appeared to be demonstrating the same streak of decency that wouldn't allow him to join in the Islamophobic hysteria when that tendency was in vogue.
So far, so good. But before pinning any medals on Mr Romney, it is important to note some worrisome signs indicating that he and his campaign may have opted for a more subtle approach to establishing the "otherness" of President Obama.
The more ham-fisted approach was used in 2008 by then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. It was both divisive and a failure. Beautifully catalogued by radio and TV personality Bill Press in his new book, The Obama Hate Machine, the GOP and their media echo chamber engaged in a multi-pronged assault against Mr Obama in an effort to paint him as "radical," "foreign" and "different than the rest of us." He was "Muslim," "associated with terrorists," "of foreign birth;" a "black militant," "not a loyal American" or a "Marxist".
Republicans failed to defeat then-Senator Obama in 2008. But their efforts did leave a deep residual mistrust of the president. For example, recent polls show that an average of 40 per cent of Republican voters in southern states do not believe Mr Obama was born in the US (and is, therefore, ineligible to be president) and more than a quarter of all Republicans still believe Mr Obama is a Muslim.
There was a more subtle approach to establishing the "otherness" of Mr Obama that had roots in the 2008 Democratic primary. A memo prepared back then by Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, Mark Penn, pointed out the "diverse multicultural background" of her opponent, suggesting that "it exposes a very strong weakness for him - his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine Americans electing a president ... who is not at his centre fundamentally American in his thinking and values".
Based on this assessment, Mr Penn then asked how the Clinton campaign "could give some life to this contrast without turning negative?" He answered his question with the following advice: "Every speech should contain the line you were born in the middle of America ... and talk about the ... deeply American values you grew up with".
While candidate Clinton rejected this approach, her surrogates, at times, did not. In any case, this memo proposing a more subtle attempt to paint Mr Obama as somehow un-American appears now to have been picked up by team-Romney in 2012.
Earlier this week I received a mass fund-raising mailer from the Romney campaign. It included a glossy full colour photo of the candidate in wrinkled jeans and windbreaker, standing in front of a weathered barn emblazoned with a massive American flag. Under the photo was written: "James, thank you for believing in America as much as I do ... this is a moment that demands we return to our basic values and core principles. Mitt Romney."
The fund-raising letter that accompanied the photo featured, on just its first page in only 15 lines of text, the words "America" and "American" 10 times. The letter began: "I believe in America ... I believe in the American Dream. And I believe in American strength". And continued: "This election is a battle for the soul of America." It concluded by asserting that this campaign is "to reclaim America for the people".
While a touch more subtle than the rejected idea of painting him as a radical with the Jeremiah Wright brush, the net effect of this Romney campaign mailing is the same. In case you missed the point: Mr Romney is the real American; he is the one who believes in "American values", and he alone is fighting for the "soul of America".
And the subtext of the message, in case you missed that: Mr Obama is different; he's not like "us"; his ideas are foreign; and he and his supporters believe in values that are un-American.
So while claiming to be traversing the high road, this GOP approach invites the same conclusion and opens the door to the same bigotry that has for four years now tarnished American's national discourse.
The election for the next president of the United States can be about many things. It can be about approaches to job creation, or philosophies of governance, or personal character, or even qualities of leadership. But in a time of great national stress, faced as the US is with a struggling economy and an unsettling and rapidly changing world, this election debate should not be about subtle or not-so-subtle digs calling into question the "patriotism" or "otherness" of the incumbent.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa