Race Matters (Part 2)
In the lead-up to Mitt Romney’s appearance before the NAACP convention last week, the commentariat widely assumed that Romney would be speaking to the group for the reason that most candidates speak to most groups: to ask for their vote. Ordinarily, when you’re running for office, the whole point of talking to people is to get some of the people you’re talking to to decide that you’re the better candidate for the office, and then to vote for you. “Romney Courts Black Vote,” the New York Times headlined on July 10, the day before the Romney speech.
This was, let’s just say, a tad naive on the part of the commentariat. Compared to Mitt Romney, John McCain was a candidate with actual appeal to African-Americans, and he got maybe five percent of the African-American vote. Mitt Romney is certainly not going to do better – Mitt Romney of the party of voter suppression, redolent of Old South poll taxes; of the party that announced to the world that its number one priority was unseating the first African-American president of the United States; of the party that isn’t convinced that its candidate is a true conservative. That Mitt Romney was going before the NAACP convention.
Mitt Romney’s actual speech confounded the commentariat. He said things that any idiot would have known would hardly convince NAACP conventioneers that he is their man. He offered up “tough medicine” and “unpopular” policies as his “appeal to African-Americans,” for which he got “boos and polite applause.” Why would a candidate go before a crowd, any crowd, only to insult them?
The clues were early and obvious in his speech. “If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him,” Romney told the NAACP. Free enterprise would succeed where government programs have failed. The trickle-down crowd probably actually believes this – just let us get as rich as we possibly can, hold out your tin cups to catch the trickling drops, and you’ll be better off. (And they say liberals are paternalistic?)
It’s even possible that Mitt Romney believes that his party’s fifty-year hostility to African-Americans is actually good for African-Americans. But it’s dead certain that the people who were in the NAACP convention hall don’t believe that.
Later the same day, Romney appeared before what we can assume was a rather paler crowd at a fundraiser in Hamilton, Montana. He mentioned that he had been booed at the NAACP convention, which he said was OK – he had expected it. He expected it, because “they” just want “free stuff” from the government, and he, Mitt Romney, is not about to give it to them.
Let’s be plain about it: this was the most direct appeal to racism by any presidential campaign since George H. W. Bush ran the infamous Willie Horton ads in 1988.
Romney went to the convention of the oldest and most respected African-American civil rights advocacy group in the country to provoke a negative reception, to prove to his skeptical base that as president he would stand up for them against the enemy. He would stand against the free-loaders and welfare queens, he would stand against tax credits for the working poor, he would demand that the less fortunate among us stop asking for government programs like education assistance, tuition subsidies and low-interest college loans, and, God help us, affirmative action.
Romney told his contributors in Montana that he told the NAACP the same thing he was telling them – that he doesn’t give different speeches to different groups. This was true, sort of, to a point. It was true, in that he played both groups a version of the Ronald Reagan “government is not the solution” song. It was true, sort of, in that he sang the song to the NAACP for purposes of getting booed, whereas he sang the song in Montana for purposes of getting campaign contributions. And it was true only to a point in that after he sang the song in Montana, he added stuff he had not said to the NAACP: that he went to the NAACP expecting to be booed, and that he was OK with being booed by people who just want “free stuff” from the government. In other words, it was more or less the same speech except for the race-baiting he stuck on the end of it in Montana.
A number of commentators have done some pretty good work on this in the last few days. My personal favorite is this short video, by Jay Smooth at Ill Doctrine.
Not too long ago, I wrote in praise of Hillary Clinton that she had run a model campaign against Barack Obama in 2008 – she showed us how it’s done, a white candidate running a vigorous campaign against an African-American candidate without playing to race. I said that doubters need only wait a couple of months to see the contrast once Mitt Romney got going. What we saw this week is just the beginning. Coming soon: a post I’m working on that argues why the Republicans are doing this, and why it’s so dumb for them to be doing it.