Romney, Obama at NALEO
The commentariat has made sure that we are all aware that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama addressed the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) this week. But with their typically limited attention span, the talking heads gave us just a few snippets of what the two speakers spoke. I submit that it’s worth an hour of a voter’s time to listen to the complete remarks of Romney and Obama.
Political candidates usually talk past each other. They might address the same issues, but they address them in a manner intended to make their own positions look obvious and the opposing positions look ridiculous. Opportunities are rare for apples-to-apples comparisons. But we got such an opportunity this week, when Mitt Romney and Barack Obama addressed the same crowd. And since their speeches were just one day apart, they addressed the crowd in the same political time and context.
The comparison is revealing. It shows why Obama will win the Latino vote big, as he did in 2008. It shows why Obama will win the election, despite economic conditions that would swamp almost any other incumbent. And it shows why the Republican Party’s long-term future is so troubled.
Both speeches were relatively short: Romney spoke for 20 minutes; Obama spoke for 27. Obama started by greeting the audience bilingually, and he concluded by bilingually repeating his 2008 slogan: Yes we can; Si se puede. Romney spoke not a word of Spanish.
Obama acknowledged members of his administration – his appointees – who were in the audience. Romney acknowledged only the speaker who had introduced him. Obama warmed up by joking; he smiled, and he looked genuinely relaxed. Romney didn’t joke, and when he smiled it was the stiff, unhappy smile that he does when he’s telling people how evil President Obama is, or when he’s addressing a heckler as “my friend.”
Both walked quickly through a series of issues: health care, education, energy, taxes, jobs, the economy, and immigration reform. Romney gave very few specifics; Obama’s policy discussion was full of specifics – both specifics of his accomplishments and specifics of his future intentions.
One of Romney’s specific proposals was his call for the repeal of Obamacare. The line got some applause. Obama’s listing of the specific benefits of his health care program was loudly applauded and vocally cheered.
Romney’s education proposals consisted of a quick reference to school choice, which was applauded. Obama talked about his expansion of Pell grants and investment in community colleges, and he called for more teachers and lower college tuition – to repeated applause.
Romney saved immigration reform for last, and it was the most interesting part of his speech. It was the only policy area where he departed from Republican orthodoxy. It was the only policy area where he offered real specifics. And it was the policy area where his remarks were best received – six of eight applause interruptions came while Romney was talking about immigration. It does not speak well about the future of the Republican Party that its candidate has to jettison the party line to appeal to one of the country’s fastest growing voting blocs.
Romney opened his discussion of immigration reform with a critique of Obama’s approach to the issue – not the substance of Obama’s policies, but the mechanics of Obama’s pursuit of those policies. Having said earlier that President Obama “takes your vote for granted,” he accused Obama of issuing his directive on work visas for young illegal immigrants in order to “secure your vote.” In other words, Obama is pandering to Latino voters while simultaneously not being concerned about them.
Substantively, Romney started with “border security,” proposing the completion of the fence along the Mexican border. He argued for uniting families by issuing green cards to family members of immigrants already here legally. He proposed “legal status” for illegal immigrant veterans, and made his famous promise to “staple a green card” to every advanced degree earned in this country by an illegal immigrant. Romney concluded with a promise to implement a verification system for employers to ensure that they hired only legal immigrants.
Obama’s discussion of immigration reform came about half-way through his speech. His voice rose with passion and conviction; he jabbed the lectern with pointed forefinger. He reminded his audience that Republicans not so long ago joined Democrats in unsuccessfully supporting immigration reform: he mentioned the “unlikely trio” of George Bush, John McCain and Ted Kennedy. He said that 23 Republican Senators had supported reform then, but that a “small faction” of the GOP had driven them from the negotiating table. He reminded the audience that Romney had promised Republican primary voters to veto the DREAM Act, and he reminded the audience that Romney had promised this audience that he would keep his promises. “We should take him at his word,” Obama said.
Both Romney and Obama made an effort to connect with the audience. Romney said his father had been born in Mexico, coming to this country when he was five years old, and that his father had at times “lived in poverty,” rising to become a successful auto executive and governor of Michigan. I doubt that many in the audience felt much identification with this story. Being born in Mexico to American citizens, and coming to this country as an American citizen, is not the immigrant experience.
Obama approached the matter differently. Instead of straining to suggest that his experience resembled the immigrant experience, he readily acknowledged that it was different – and he praised the diversity of American experiences. Obama said that some of our ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, some were brought on slave ships, some “signed in” at Ellis Island, and some got here by crossing the Rio Grande. (He didn’t mention those Americans whose ancestors were already here.) Obama said, in effect, we got here by different routes, but I understand your ambitions and desires because those we all share. Romney said, in effect, my Dad was born south of the border, so I understand you. I think it’s clear which approach is more genuine, more empathetic, more authentic, and more appealing.
Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama will ever be classed in the same league as Bill Clinton for empathy. But they are very different in their aloofness. This week at NALEO, as he generally does, Obama conveyed intellect and a capacity for complexity. He conveyed conviction about issues, and commitment to causes that affect people’s lives.
Romney, continuing before NALEO his unceasing critique of all things Obama, conveys snippy irritation. He talks about human aspiration and government policy like numbers on a balance sheet. There is neither emotion nor intellect; neither inspiration nor wonky details.