The presumptive Republican presidential nominee traveled to the NAACP convention in Houston, as my colleague Melinda Henneberger wrote, and couldn’t high-tail it back to his conservative base fast enough.
In Montana, he reported in detail on how he meted out a dose of tough medicine the NAACP needed. “Your friends who like ‘Obamacare,’ you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy — more free stuff.” He lumped together the business owners, ministers and middle-class folks who make up the membership of a venerable civil-rights group into just another bunch of freeloaders — and his base loved it.
The members of the NAACP weren’t individuals whose vote he courted. They were props. No mention of the applause he received at the beginning, end and during pieces of his speech the crowd liked. You can bet it’s only “the boos” you will see in fundraising pitches to the hard-core, evidence of stereotypes that didn’t need any reinforcement.
In fact, Romney is praised for his courage for appearing before them, though why it’s brave to talk with citizens you might eventually serve, I have no idea. Some say it’s to his credit that he didn’t pander, that he delivered the boilerplate he might serve to a sympathetic GOP town-hall rally. Nonsense. Politicians tailor their speeches all the time – to military veterans, women’s groups, police officers or Wall Street bundlers. Will Romney mention foreign policy and aid when he travels to Israel? I’m thinking he might.
Compare Romney’s recent speech before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando to see the difference between someone who is working for votes and the same person content to stage a piece of political theater.
Would it have hurt team Romney to do a little research into the 103-year history of the NAACP, formed by whites and blacks to fight lynching and work toward equal rights for Americans of all races and nationalities? In the audience were doctors, lawyers, citizens engaged in the community activism and philanthropy Romney could easily support and encourage. But instead of talking with them, he lectured and prodded — and by the look on his face, had fun doing it.
If Mitt Romney were a more graceful campaigner, he could have reached across any divisions to emphasize things he had in common with members of the NAACP; pre- and post-speech interviews hardly showed individuals in lockstep. He might have noted issues important to the group even when opinions diverged.
Members of the NAACP have earned the right to be skeptical of GOP-led voting restrictions, given the history of the country and the NAACP’s history on righting that particular wrong. It was Mississippi NAACP official Medgar Evers and others who gave their lives in the effort.
When thoughtful, intelligent people discern echoes of poll taxes and literacy tests in new voting hurdles set up in the states, any politician asking for their votes needs to address those concerns.
Remember, it was Mike Turzai of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives who recently told a meeting of the Republican State Committee when running down a list of GOP successes: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”
If you disagree on the issue, members of the NAACP can take it; its older members have experienced far worse.
My late mother would have welcomed any sincere effort. She was a Lincoln Republican, staunch in her support of the party’s conservative values and its moderate civil-rights views.
She worked as an election-day precinct official, monitoring for fairness and order, and handed out literature for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
When Ronald Reagan demonized welfare queens and “bucks” mooching with food stamps, she saw through the transparent grab for disaffected white voters and it sickened her.
As someone who had worked since she was 14 years old and never asked for a break, she felt betrayed by the party she had worked so hard for. Like longtime members of the NAACP, she would have seen through Romney’s attempt at peace-making.
He has already infantilized the president of the United States, saying his fellow Harvard alumnus just doesn’t understand how the economy works.
“He’s in over his head,” Romney has said. This past week, Romney gave the audience the equivalent of a pat on the head and a stern paternal rebuke. He left with the video op he wanted to return to the welcoming arms of his base.
Mitt Romney gets it, all right. But after seeing his dandy little show in front of the NAACP, I can’t help but wonder what Americans are getting in return.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.