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Lots of people are talking about Chris Matthews teeing off on Reince Priebus today, accusing the GOP of “playing the race card” against the President. Mitt Romney’s birther joke, their blatantly false ad accusing the President of removing the work requirement from welfare (the ad in heaviest rotation at this point in the campaign), and a much-copied remark from Preibus, echoing others, about Obama wanting to remake the country into something “like Europe” all were grist for this mill. Even the framing of the debate over Medicare, that “you paid into it” and now your benefits are being “stolen” for those other people to get Obamacare, seems calculated to play into this.

There’s definitely some truth to Matthews’ outburst. For example, the welfare/work issue is truly a bizarre policy to make a stand on in this campaign absent the consistent racial overtones to any welfare debate. The HHS waivers for states, which were requested by Republican governors for years, only happened a couple months ago. Is the position that the Obama Presidency was humming along just fine until the waiver announcement in mid-2012? Is there nothing else the Romney campaign has from which to draw?

Moreover, welfare isn’t even much of a policy anymore, thanks in large part to welfare “reform,” which has proven completely inadequate in the Great Recession. Only 27% of those in poverty receive welfare benefits at this point. Yet Romney doubled down on this, and made pretty plain the nature of the appeal, by suggesting that the welfare changes are a play for Obama to “shore up his base.”

I will take exception to this idea that the Romney campaign made a conscious choice to adopt a “harder message” because the economic argument has fallen short, however.

Having survived a summer of attacks but still trailing the president narrowly in most national polls, Mr. Romney’s campaign remains focused intently on the economy as the issue that can defeat Mr. Obama. But in a marked change, Mr. Romney has added a harder edge to a message that for most of this year was focused on his business and job-creation credentials, injecting volatile cultural themes into the race [...]

The strategic shift in the campaign message that has been unfolding in recent weeks reflects a conclusion among Mr. Romney’s advisers that disappointment with Mr. Obama’s economic stewardship is not sufficient to propel Mr. Romney to victory on its own.

This is nutty. The economic argument has been the thing keeping Romney in the game and in a dead heat in national polls (state polls are a different story), despite the summer of attacks. I would argue that the racial appeal was a conscious strategy FOUR YEARS in the making. John McCain wouldn’t brook it, and the Romney campaign clearly sees that as a mistake. They were always planning to compensate for a soft connection between Romney and the base of the party by playing up the racial polarity in an effort to goose white turnout.

The almost exclusively white base needs to turn out in big numbers to give Republicans a chance, with demographic shifts being what they are. If turnout looks like 2010 they win; if it looks like 2008 they lose. So race-based appeals, the idea that the “others” are getting benefits with the hard-earned tax dollars of the white working class, plays a crucial role.

Republicans will return fire predictably, by saying that it’s the Democrats playing the race card, because the worst kind of racism is the racism that accuses somebody of being a racist.

So this election, and elections in the near future, were always going to have a racial component. It’s etched into the fabric of the country.