The Labor Right's American Playbook


Mitt Romney was publicly humiliated by a huge audience this week, and it was the greatest victory of his campaign so far.

Speaking to the NAACP national conference in Huston, Romney drew the crowd’s ire with the following comment:

"…I am going to eliminate every non-essential expensive program I can find…[pause]that includes Obamacare"

The audience’s reaction brought his speech to a halt, leaving Romney standing awkwardly in front of the cameras while the audience voiced their outrage. 

But make no mistake, this attack on Obama’s Affordable Care program in front of the progressive African-American lobby group was no slip-up from the hardened campaigner and former Governor. It was a move straight out of the Karl Rove playbook.

Within hours of the comments (and the footage making the national news) Romney responded to the controversy, saying "if they want more stuff from the government, tell them to vote for the other guy".

Of course, the "they" Romney is referring to is plausibly the NAACP. But given that African-Americans have long been tarred with the stereotype of being welfare cheats who live off government handouts, one could also plausibly read the comment as playing to a nasty racial prejudice.

In America it has become increasingly hard for politicians to make direct attacks on the basis of race, and this forces Republicans to get creative. During the 2000 Republican primary, then candidate John McCain was famously the victim of push-polling implying that he had fathered a black child, and the nouveau vandals of the Tea Party have made a sport out of drawing attention to Obama’s otherness (without mentioning skin colour, mind you) by claiming that he was born outside the United States.

In deliberately setting himself up to be shouted down on the topic of Obamacare, Romney was engineering a conflict between himself and immediate audience for the benefit of a different and wider audience: the white working class.

Given Obama’s massive lead over Romney on black and hispanic voters, and his relatively solid standing with college-educated voters (you can read more about the demographics here) it is well understood that Romney needs a massive share of the white working class vote to carry key states in November.

How does he do this? Well lets just say that being booed and heckled by a room full of angry African-American activists doesn’t hurt his cause.

This communicative dualism — speaking to one audience as a means of getting a different message through to another — looks to be the latest and greatest campaigning trick in the ongoing game of US politics, and if history is any indicator, these little tricks will find their way into Australian politics sooner or later.

Given the backdrop of our increasingly bitter, nasty and polarised Federal politics, at a stretch a Romney-style play may also go some way to explaining why the New South Wales Labor Right would lash out at otherwise progressive voters for thinking about supporting the Greens.

The message from Sam Dastyari and Paul Howes was framed in the strongest terms possible. Almost calculated to offend, if you like. Not only are the Greens progressive, they are "extreme" and so dangerous as to be a modern day equivalent of One Nation. 

Its hardly a persuasive message to anyone familiar with the Greens. Or, for that matter, anyone who has been outside in the last 10 years. But Howes and Dastyari’s message isn’t directed at Labor voters thinking about going Green. At least not in the way you would think.

As Dennis Glover is right to point out, even the issue supposedly at hand is a distraction. There was never a policy within the Labor party of "automatically" handing preferences to the Greens. Six years of Steven Fielding are ample evidence of that.

So who are the NSW Right really talking to? Well, consider who is reacting.

It is no understatement to say that Dastyari and Howes’ comments have been met with outrage, much of it from progressives in the media. And let’s not even mention the reaction on Twitter.

Progressives are angry that a party supposedly fighting for its life against Tony Abbott would turn the guns around on their minority government partner, and furious that the nominally centre-left ALP would shift again to the right, appearing to consider preference deals with the conservative side of politics. Howes’ and Dastyari’s attack is perceived to be targeting the very progressive voters it is notionally aimed at winning back to the party.

Their message, that Labor will wage war on the Greens, throw away progressive social policy and break bread with the lunar Right of Family First and the DLP, is not aimed at wavering Greens voters who happen to read the Daily Telegraph. It is aimed at alienating those from the progressive end of the spectrum who might otherwise have considered joining the ALP.

After all, the greatest threat to the power of the NSW Right is not that Labor will lose primary votes which will then come back in preferences, or that Labor will lose inner-city progressive seats to a party who will almost certainly cut deals with it in government, but rather that those same progressives will actually support the party, join it and threaten the even now not entirely iron grip of the NSW Right.

And the scary thing is, this approach just might be working. If you consider yourself to be a progressive, you will probably have been disgusted by Howes’ insanely disingenuous claim that the Greens want your team to lose at rugby. You have probably been further horrified by the statement that environmentalists are the new One Nation, and the implication that Labor wants you to preference the DLP. If you are, their job is half done.

If reactions in print and social media are anything to go on, the result of this week’s attack on the Greens may have turned many progressive voters, and young progressive voters especially, off Labor for life. 

It’s a scary proposition for the future of the Labor Party. What is scarier is how much Dastyari and Howes stand to gain from it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.