Presidential Dog Whistles

By Mike Dorf

A recent NPR News story discusses the fact of the Presidential candidates' silence on a number of issues.  I'm quoted with respect to two such issues: campaign finance and Supreme Court appointments.

I express puzzlement that the Obama campaign didn't try to tie Citizens United--which is broadly unpopular--more closely to Mitt Romney.  It would have been a logical move, given that Romney has cited Justices in the majority as his models, that he said "corporations are people my friend," and that he has the financial support of outside groups funded by billionaires.  To be sure, Obama hardly has clean hands on campaign finance, but he holds the relatively high ground here, which should be all that counts.  With respect to the Supreme Court, I explain the silence on the ground that there are risks for both sides because the party activists who care about the litmus-test issues in the courts tend to take positions -- either right or left -- that might prove broadly unpopular.

Still, that's only a partial explanation.  It has long been true that hot-button issues in the courts were polarizing and thus potentially dangerous for Presidential candidates, but candidates have, in the past, nonetheless tried to use such issues either as wedges or to mobilize the base.  On judicial appointments as on so many other issues, the tricky part is figuring out how to mobilize the base without alienating the middle.

A nice example of that maneuver came in 2000 when candidate George W. Bush denounced the Dred Scott decision in one of his debate answers.  To the average viewer, this might have been simply harmless rhetoric.  After all, it wasn't as though anybody thought that Al Gore was running on a pro-slavery platform.  But conservative activists understood Bush's references to Dred Scott as a coded message that he would oppose abortion, because the pro-life movement has likened Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott.  Invoking Dred Scott was like blowing on a dog-whistle that was audible only in the conservative activist portion of the spectrum.

Were there similar dog whistles in the Obama-Romney debates?  It depends on what you hear.  Romney's references to food stamps--both in the debates and on the stump--could be understood as coded race-baiting.  Like all good dog whistles, this one has deniability.  The fact that the number of people on food stamps has increased does indeed reflect badly on the country's economic state.  But of course food stamps aren't the problem.  The underlying need for food is the problem.  So while Romney says that he wants to get people off of food stamps by bringing down unemployment, the very choice to illustrate the underlying problem by talking about food stamps is questionable, especially given the (false) stereotype of the typical food stamp recipient as African American.

What about dog whistles by Obama?  To my mind, the most interesting example is the discussion of access to contraception as a kind of code for abortion.  It's true that contraception itself has become politicized of late, but even the 2012 Republican Party is not at all likely to substantially reduce domestic access to contraception, and that would probably be true even if Rick Santorum were the party's nominee.  So why has President Obama called attention to Republican opposition to funding for contraception?

Partly it's just good politics in its own right.  Doing so dramatizes the extremity of a substantial chunk of the modern Republican Party (including Paul Ryan) on social issues.  But I also suspect that Obama is using contraception (or "women's health" more broadly) as a dog whistle for abortion.  Social moderates who may even be somewhat pro-life hear criticisms of Republican opposition to contraception as merely criticism of an extreme position.  Meanwhile, clearly pro-choice liberals (part of the Democratic base) hear the criticism and think that if some people in the Republican Party would go so far as to challenge access to contraception, then the Party as a whole must be dangerously anti-abortion.

Of course, I could be wrong about either of these examples.  My hearing is fine, but I'm not a dog.