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Associate Editor

The self-inflicted Republican affliction

By Peter St. Onge

If Barack Obama defeats Mitt Romney on Tuesday, you can blame it – at least a little – on the noose.

You probably read this week about that backyard display in Plaza Midwood. It was a stuffed body with the president’s photo attached to the head, a noose wrapped around the neck. It was visible to the public, including neighborhood children.

A man who lives at the home told a reporter that someone must have done it after a party last weekend, but it doesn’t matter, really. Somebody put it there – a noxious act that should be, by now, completely unsurprising.

After all, there also was an Obama effigy in California this week, another in Indiana and Utah. And it wasn’t long ago that we saw bumper stickers in Charlotte and other cities that read: “Don’t Re-Nig in 2012.” Isolated cases, you say? Last week, 39 percent of respondents to an Associated Press survey said the president was born in another country.

It’s proud ignorance and joyful ugliness, and all of it has been embraced and feared – but rarely criticized – by Republican leaders.

That’s infuriating to moderate conservatives who believe that legitimate criticisms of the president get diluted because they share the same house with the crazies and the uglies. How, some wonder, can voters choose a president who presides over a stagnant economy, an astounding debt, with no new ideas about how to change either? For some, it’s because the alternative means voting with the birthers and the racists. It means being on the same team as the debate crowd that booed a gay soldier, or the crowd that cheered the idea of letting a sick man with no health insurance die.

Yes, Democrats also have their extremists. And certainly, Romney has come under withering criticism from the left, some of it unfair and inaccurate. Every election suffers from a bit of over-the-topness.

But we have yet to see Romney hanging from a noose.

Political candidates have long known about the power of the positive collective, how voters cast their ballots not only on issues, but to be part of something larger, fresh and promising. Obama rode that kind of wave with “Hope and Change” in 2008, just as Reagan did with his “Morning in America” in 1980. They did so by turning dissatisfaction into something affirming, by understanding that anger may move the base, but optimism moves the middle.

Today’s Republican leaders, though, gave into the worst among them. Frustration with big government may have launched the tea party in 2009, but the movement flung open the doors to all anger, even that which previously lived on the fringe. Offensiveness went mainstream, and instead of imagining the long-term consequences that might bring, Republicans leapt at the short-term energy. They joined the crowds demonizing Obama. They entertained questions about his birthplace. Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!”

So fearful are some Republicans of the far right that when a stage full of GOP candidates for president was famously asked last year if they’d increase taxes one dollar in exchange for $10 of spending cuts, not one dared raise a hand. Moderate Mitt Romney was among them, of course, and he’s since invited people to dinner with birther Donald Trump and told rich fundraisers what they wanted to hear about 47 percent of Americans. His lurch back to the center was bound to set eyes rolling.

If Romney loses this remarkably close election Tuesday, some Republicans will insist it was because he wasn’t conservative enough. But Romney already had the votes to the right. The ones he lost this election included moderates repulsed at the thought of aligning themselves with what his party has become. Maybe the best thing that can happen for them – for all of us – is for extremism to lose, and for hate not to be – as it never should – a winning strategy.

St. Onge: pstonge@charlotteobserver.com; 704-358-5029.
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