Romney's Birther "Joke" Wasn't a Joke.

This afternoon, while campaigning in Michigan, Mitt Romney made a little joke about President Obama’s birth certificate:

Here’s the text:

I love being home, in this place where Ann and I were raised. Where both of us were born … No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.

Here’s the Obama campaign’s response:

Throughout this campaign, Governor Romney has embraced the most strident voices in his party instead of standing up to them. It’s one thing to give the stage in Tampa to Donald Trump, Sheriff Arpaio, and Kris Kobach. But Governor Romney’s decision to directly enlist himself in the birther movement should give pause to any rational voter across America.

Naturally, Team Romney is trying to stop this from becoming a national story, and the campaign has offered a variety of excuses why Romney made the joke. My favorite comes from Romney advisor Kevin Madden. “The governor has always said, and has repeatedly said, he believes the president was born here in the United States,” Madden said. “He was only referencing that Michigan, where he is campaigning today, is the state where he himself was born and raised.”

Right.

Now, it’s unquestionably true that Mitt Romney isn’t a birther. He knows that President Obama was born in the United States and is fully eligible to serve as President of the United States.

But that isn’t an excuse, it’s an indictment.

Romney’s problem, throughout this campaign, has been his inability to seal the deal with skeptical conservatives. In the primaries, this forced him to take far-right positions on issues like abortion and immigration—he endorsed personhood amendments and “self-deportation”—and in the general election, it has led him to make a huge gamble by choosing Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan—whose plan for Medicare plan and views on reproductive rights are widely unpopular—as his running mate. If Romney were confident in his ability to win the GOP base, he would have gone with someone more moderate. But as it stands, he needed a conservative ideologue on the ticket to show his fealty to the movement.

The birther joke is further evidence that Romney is uncertain of his standing with the Republican base. It’s clear from the video that this was an intentional move to establish a shared tribal identity, and—judging from their laughter and obvious approval—that’s how it was understood by the largely white audience.

A plausible objection to this view is that Romney wasn’t trying to make a dogwhistle—that it was a harmless joke which went awry because of a bad delivery. Indeed, to push back against the emerging outrage, some journalists noted occasions when President Obama made birther jokes, while others set this as the other side of Obama’s snarky comments about Romney’s infamous incident with the family dog.

A few thoughts.

First, the video strongly suggests that this wasn’t a joke. Romney assumes a certain demeanor when he is joking in public—"ingratiating" is the word that comes to mind—and this had more in common with the Romney of debates and speeches: cool, controlled and confident.

But even if it was a joke, it’s important to understand the context. For the last month, Romney has devoted his campaign to falsely accuse Obama of gutting welfare's work requirements (“You wouldn’t have to work, and wouldn’t have to train for a job”) This claim has been debunked by independent fact checkers, pundits, and major news organizations.

In each instance, analysts have noted the extent to which this attack is meant to play on racial fears and resentments. Romney’s welfare ads are meant to conjure images of “young bucks” and “welfare queens,” and are a callback to Newt Gingrich’s declaration of Obama as a “food stamp president.” Romney’s line on welfare is a mainstay of his stump speeches, and has been deployed whenever he’s addressing a crowd of working-class whites. Romney’s victory depends on winning a huge share of the white vote, to do so, he’s decided to play the politics of white resentment in the most explicit way possible.

If this were a stray remark, I would be willing to give Romney the benefit of the doubt. But given the background and context, I simply can’t believe that Romney made a mistake with his birther joke. It fits too well with everything else he’s done.

Between birtherism, the accusations of illegitimacy and the constant recourse to racialized attacks, it’s hard to deny that there’s something ugly lurking beneath right-wing opposition to Obama. Mitt Romney, who seeks to represent the 300 million people of this country, has decided to unleash it.

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