Clint Eastwood's memorable appearance at the Republican National Convention quickly inspired a meme: Conservatives are angry with an invisible President Obama, a man whom most voters simply don't see. That explains their insistence that the president is a socialist, a Muslim, a weak and cowardly apologist for American strength.
It's a sardonic bit of cultural commentary but a useful one: It gives voice to the gap between reality -- Obama is a centrist liberal whose policies are well within the mainstream -- and the tea-party-fueled fantasies about a president who is secretly plotting with the nation's enemies. However, it turns out that the Eastwood-empty-chair meme doesn't go far enough to explain the reality gap between the average American voter and the conservatives who make up the Republican base.
If you listen to the now-infamous video of Mitt Romney disparaging half of Americans as lazy moochers, you'll understand that it's not only Obama who is unrecognizable in the conservative mind-set. It's also the nation. Republicans have not only made up a fantasy president; he is supported by an equally fanciful electorate.
In the minds of the legions who listen to Rush Limbaugh, voters support Obama only because he gives them government handouts. Furthermore, many of them are voting illegitimately, stealing elections from the reasonable Republicans who would otherwise be winning -- or so that thinking goes.
Just take a look at one of the GOP's decade-long obsessions: voter ID laws. Around the country, GOP-led state legislatures have imposed stringent requirements for specific forms of photo ID, all in the name of thwarting illegal ballots. Conservatives paint a dire picture of democracy under siege by fraudulent voters.
Never mind that in-person voter fraud -- the illegitimate balloting that picture IDs are meant to prevent -- is practically non-existent. An exhaustive new study of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 found 10 -- 10 -- cases of voter impersonation. In a nation where the bigger problem, by far, is voter apathy, it is bordering on delusional to believe large numbers of people would go to the polls pretending to be somebody else.
Nevertheless, that's a popular belief on the far right. Last week, Gary Bauer, former head of the ultraconservative Family Research Council, told a reporter for Talking Points Memo, a left-leaning news site, that voter fraud is "rampant in urban areas" and will help Obama.
Bauer's view is shared by a tea-party-linked group called True the Vote, which has told various versions of a story about busloads of illegitimate voters showing up at the polls for elections around the country, according to The New York Times. No election officials have ever spotted the buses, however. Indeed, the efforts of activists from True the Vote often target legal voters, the Times noted.
The notion of widespread voter fraud is as wrongheaded as Romney's pronouncements about a nation wherein nearly half the citizens refuse to take responsibility for their lives. Among the 47 percent or so who don't pay federal income taxes are retirees, active-duty military personnel and working-class families with several children. Many, by the way, consider themselves Republicans (or did before Romney insulted them).
If rank-and-file ultraconservative voters have been hoodwinked into believing that their fellow citizens are vote-stealing grifters, the Republican intelligentsia knows better. They know perfectly well, for example, that voter ID laws are designed to suppress the franchise for certain portions of the electorate who tend to support Democrats.
Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately affected by voter ID laws because they are less likely to have a driver's license than white voters. If thousands of them are unable to vote, Republican candidates have better odds at the ballot box. It's a brutally simple strategy.
The good news is that federal courts are increasingly looking askance at voter ID laws, which pose an impediment to a fundamental American right. Bauer can believe what he likes, but he and his ilk should not be able to flout the U.S. Constitution.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
COPYRIGHT 2012 CYNTHIA TUCKER