Consider, for a moment, that here we are, five days away from the election, and a Republican nominee for President has run a campaign against an African-American opponent that has barely touched any of the traditional racially-charged domestic-policy issues. Affirmative action has been off the table, of course. Obama's liberal record on crime has been raised, I believe, in a couple of Rudy Giuliani robocalls and that's about it. The "welfare" ad I just linked to is pretty much the first time the McCain campaign has mentioned the word all year: Obama opposed the mid-1990s welfare reform (albeit in a characteristically bets-hedging way), but you'd never know it from listening to his opponent's campaign. Nor have they touched immigration, where the Obama camp takes the prize for the most demagogic, racially-charged attack ad. And of course Obama's most politically-poisonous personal association has been more or less off the table throughout.
Now there are various reasons why none of these issues have played a role in the campaign: Attacking on some of these fronts would have required flip-flops on McCain's part; attacking on others (crime, especially) would have reaped vastly diminished returns compared to GOP campaigns of yore; etc. But it's also the case that the Obama campaign (and its surrogates and allies) have done a masterful job of boxing the GOP in on race-related fronts, playing off the media's biases, McCain's sense of honor, and the Republican Party's unpleasant history to create a climate of hair-trigger sensitivity around terrains and topic that usually hurt Democratic candidates. I'm not asking anyone to shed any tears for the McCain camp on this front: African-Americans have been on the losing end of hardball politics in this country since the first slave ship docked in Virginia, and there's more than a little rough justice in the fact that Barack Obama's campaign has found ways to turn his race to its advantage during this campaign.
Ross has most of this right. I would add that for the McCain campaign to raise the issues of crime and welfare would make it sound a little like Snowball:
Surely, comrades! Surely you do not want Jones back?
By which I mean that those were the winning issues of two decades past. For better or worse, those problems -- and they were, in fact, significant problems -- are regarded in the public mind as being solved, or at least contained. That Obama will attempt to abandon that containment is probable, and his efforts must and will be resisted when he makes them. But as Ross himself has pointed out many times, this line of attack doesn't address the wholly new set of problems that voters face or see themselves facing, and it therefore lacks the salience of appeals on these new issues.
But it is a shame to read Ross buying into the story of "the Republican Party's unpleasant history" with regard to race. Indeed, most of the problems about crime and welfare and quotas and intrusive government were to varying degrees problems that blacks caused for whites. So? Why should this paralyze America from addressing them?
Indeed, why should white Americans feels the least bit guilty for recognizing, say, welfare as "taking money from whites to give to shiftless blacks"? There is ample evidence that this is precisely how Barack Obama sees the matter: not as "helping the deserving at the expense of the undeserving", or even "helping the poor at the expense of the rich", but as "helping blacks at the expense of whites". That Obama wants to do this is not necessarily to his discredit. It gives the lie to his post-2004 image as an avatar of racial reconciliation, but it's understandable that Obama wants to help the people with whom he identifies.
However, it is also understandable that white Americans want to ask, "Why would I want to hurt my people for the benefit of those people?" It is understandable for us to ask in advance how far and at what cost this logic is going to take us. But the Democrats want to have it both ways. It kind of reminds me how the gay community adopted one of the Teletubbies as some kind of gay mascot, and then erupted with jeers when Jerry Falwell noticed that the gay community had adopted a Teletubby as a gay mascot. Similiarly, the Obama campaign want to make racialist appeals and plan racially redistributive programs and then denounce those who will be left holding the bill when we object that this is what they are doing. Indeed, as Ross points out, the Obama campaign has been phenomenally successful at exactly this strategy. But if there is justice and fairness in the world of politics, this isn't it.
UPDATE: Regarding my characterization of AFDC as transfer payments "from hardworking whites to shiftless blacks" above: seeing as how in 1994 there were as many white AFDC recipients as black recipients (H.T.: Trumwill's comment), this characterization is incomplete. However, the program STILL constitutes a net interracial transfer, and that, as such, it had a higher political bar to clear than it would otherwise. Perhaps because I believe that bar to have been set far to low on the merits, this observation doesn't bother me; on the contrary, I'm not sure on what grounds we should expect, or demand, anything different.