Mitt Romney went to the NAACP’s National Convention planning to get booed. It was no mistake. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told Bloomberg TV she believes “it was a calculated move on his part to get booed at the NAACP convention.” When Romney called the Affordable Care Act “Obamacare,” he purposely used a term that would not work with the audience in the room. When he said, “If you want a President who’ll make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him. Take a look!” he was virtually taunting them the way a pro wrestler who’s playing a villain eggs on the crowd saying things he knows will elicit boos.
Why would he bother going to the NAACP convention to get booed? Because the real audience wasn’t in the room. He wanted to be booed by that black audience so that white conservatives — who still don’t see him as one of them — and white undecideds would see that he’s unafraid to talk down to black people, to offend them, to be their villain, to make them boo. The result is that he comes off looking tough or gains sympathy. Either way, he gets a soundbite that will bounce through the cable news echo chamber and elicit an emotional reaction from white voters. Romney’s performance wasn’t intended to win more black votes, it was intended to help win more white votes.
Tim Alberta of the conservative-leaning National Journal read Romney’s performance in heroic terms rarely applied to this candidate. “With the critical eyes of the political world resting squarely upon him, Romney marched defiantly into the lion’s den and delivered a speech that was direct, assertive and dispassionate,” Alberta wrote. So blacks, in this analogy, are ferocious wild animals who should be feared, only tameable by the most fearless of men, which, Romney supposedly proved he is by facing them down and talking tough.
Republicans don’t always treat the NAACP this way. When George W. Bush went to the convention in 2000 as a candidate for president he said respectfully, “The party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln,” addressing why the GOP is not loved by black voters while nodding to the party’s greatest racial justice achievement. Bush said, “Racism, despite all our progress, still exists,” and spoke of racial profiling by police. He spoke to the people in the room, not using them to help himself — just as Joe Biden did a day after Romney’s speech.
Romney’s campaign is built around the idea that as a successful businessman he understands how to shape the economy to aid business and create jobs that will get this country going again. Okay, so why not tailor that message to lay out a plan to combat the black unemployment rate, which is 14.4%, almost double the white unemployment rate? He has said nothing about that. His Mormon faith is central to who he is, so why not speak to the Mormon Church’s history of excluding blacks from the priesthood until 1978 when Romney was 31?
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Romney did tell the NAACP, “Always in both parties there have been men and women of integrity, decency and humility who have called injustice by its name. Someone who set a standard of conduct and made us better by their example. For me that man is my father.” Romney’s father, Michigan Governor George Romney, was unquestionably progressive on racial issues. He marched with civil rights activists in 1963, agitated for a civil rights plank in the GOP party platform in 1964, rejected the 1964 presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater because of Goldwater’s regressive position on civil rights, and fought housing discrimination as Nixon’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. When Mitt Romney goes to the NAACP to play politics and use those black attendees as props meant to help amplify his message with white voters outside the room, he reminds us that he is not living up to the standard of integrity and decency set by his beloved father.