Romney’s speech at the NAACP convention Wednesday prompted heavy media coverage, and everyone (including me), has a take on it and it’s implications for Romney’s character. Seeing as how Romney has given us so little to draw from, we sap such events for any insights into Mitt Romney we can.
The circumstance itself is somewhat unexpected, as Romney’s chances of drumming up any support among that demographic is little to none. 95% of African-Americans voted for President Obama in the 2008 election, and Obama still has great support from them. African-Americans make up the most homogenous and consistently Democratic voting block. President Bush turned down the offer to speak in front of the NAACP until five years into his presidency, and I would argue Romney’s ability to relate with African-Americans is little better.
Romney went in knowing the reception would be poor, relating that he had “expected to be booed,” but still insisted on the gesture. Not surprisingly, his message remained essentially the same: his prescription for the economy is an unencumbered marketplace through smaller government. Smaller government would mean for Romney, “eliminat[ing] every nonessential, expensive program I can find–include[ing] Obamacare.”
Jason Riley asks, “why use this sort of venue to reach out to black voters?” Well, there are several reasons. The first is political credibility; proposing a consistent argument, despite the crowd earns you some level of respect from both parties. Economics is about the only thing which Mitt seems to express any real convictions, so he appears credible–even if not altogether trustworthy–to this particular crowd.
Scot Esaile, state president of the Connecticut NAACP expresses his mistrust, “We’re not falling for the health care bill is the reason why people don’t have jobs,” he said. “Prior to the health care bill being passed, there were no jobs, and a lot of those jobs were lost under the Republican administration.”
Nonetheless, the courtesy of showing up in campaign season was one greater than Bush extended.
This certainly gives those backing Romney an opportunity to buck up a little; Romney didn’t fudge up an uncomfortable situation and was rather adroit in keeping on message, apparently deviating from script several times. Most importantly to his base, however is that he did not pander, and the few attempts at flattery are gauche and come off as patronizing.
He did not pull a ‘Rick Perry’ but the speech was undoubtedly received quite poorly, ranging from unconvinced to insulted.
Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, said Romney didn’t change any minds but “he opened minds to ask harder questions.”
Geraldine Alexis, said “I thought he would try to appease us. He didn’t. He insulted us, with some of the things he said.”
Similarly, Julian Bond, the NAACP chairman said, “He’s saying, ’Look here, I met with the Negroes. I talked to them. I argued my positions. I don’t think they took them, but at least I showed up.’ “
Still, he received light applause throughout, and a standing ovation from some at the end. Although, as Andrea Stone points out “the ovation that may have had more to do with the father than the son.”
The range of reaction, I think can be attributed to the varied nature of the speech itself. He spoke with an odd mixture of humility and brashness. He opened his speech with a guileless “[Republicans] sure don’t make a habit of assuming anybody’s support. Support is asked for, and earned” and moved to “If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him. Take a good look.” Perhaps this is just some unexpected gusto from a typically tepid politician, but if not, I daresay he was broaching on arrogance with such a remark.
The perceived insensitivity the audience felt is certainly not unfounded, but something that I think has more to do with Romney himself and the argument he’s putting forward than the speech itself. Romney was as diplomatic as we’ve seen him in the past and he lined his speech with an obligatory references to Frederick Douglass and reminded them, as Bush did in ’06, that the Republican party was first (or once) an advocate of civil rights in the 60′s–a point which amazes me they think is to their advantage.
A man whose net worth is 200 million dollars telling any audience that the problem is that–we, the super-rich–are having to pay too much in taxes is a bit incongruent, unless he’s talking to room of wealthy shareholders. Blacks have the highest unemployment rate at the moment, and the opportunity for affordable healthcare likely strikes them (as it does most industrialized nations) as a civil right. Romney went on at length about how blacks face particularly high unemployment and poverty rates and that dropouts and lack of school reform is due to Obama’s failed policies, and that his policies will turn all that around.
Romney and the Republican Party are borrowing a thesis from Thomas Frank, claiming that Democrats and African-Americans particularly, are not voting in their economic interests. He wants to do what, as he says, he did in Massachusetts, and win over staunch Democrats. There is some level of condescension in such a proposition, but his hope is that some may respond to his show of strength, his persuasion, or his appeals to help him to help them.
The other hope is that this will help to galvanize his base. Romney certainly had no illusions of sweeping any great number of people at the convention off their feet, but used this as an opportunity to reignite the resentment present in the conservative wing. For those in that camp, this economy is dragging due, in large part, to bloated safety-net programs. Those who are overworked and underpaid–are propping up the growing class of layabouts and malingerers. This is not without some truth, but it is a bit unusual that those in the ‘upper-lower-middle-class’ or any variation thereof are looking cross at those that are impoverished, whether deservingly or not, rather than the people with all the money.
Susan Brooks has jumped all over comments Romney made at a recent Montana fundraiser: that blacks were voting for Obama to get “free stuff.” Brooks writes that this “is roughly equivalent, in its racial undertones, to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” messaging from his 1976 presidential campaign. Rachel Maddow points out the persistent role that argument has played in this race, relating it to students for federal school loans, and women for contraception.
John Dickerson wrote that this event has distracted from the real political argument of job outsourcing, so the post after next will be on the argument we missed out on.