Mitt Romney must think he is very clever. The Republican presidential hopeful’s willingness to go speak to a “hostile” audience at the annual NAACP National Convention in Houston yesterday was billed as courageous, or even a smart political move.
President Obama declined an offer to speak at the convention and sent Vice President Joe Biden instead, leaving Romney as the sole presidential hopeful addressing the convention. Romney and conservatives billed his speech as a willingness to speak to a community which overwhelmingly supports the president, while at the same time pandering to their interests and pretending to be concerned about the extremely high rates of African-American unemployment, placing the blame for those high rates squarely on the president.
But Mitt Romney might be too clever for his own good. During the speech, Romney got just what he came for. In a segment of his remarks to the NAACP pulled right from his stump speech normally given to Republican audiences, Romney said he was going to get rid of “wasteful” programs saying, “[a]nd so to do that I’m going to eliminate every non-essential program I can find. And that includes Obamacare.”
The Obama friendly audience loudly booed these comments and Romney stood awkwardly and almost grinning soaking it all in. Mitt Romney got exactly he came for. Romney later admitted he “expected” to be booed.
His willingness to speak with black Americans who support the president at rates consistently as high as 90% was all for show. The appearance was not about bravery or a genuine concern for the issues impacting the African-Americans, it was about speaking to his own base. Romney gave a speech to the NAACP convention but the message was not for black voters, it was for Republicans.
Romney’s calculated ploy was confirmed later on at a campaign fundraiser in Hamilton, Montana when the candidate commented on his NAACP appearance and reception:
By the way, I had the privilege of speaking today at the NAACP convention in Houston and I gave them the same speech I am giving you. I don’t give different speeches to different audiences alright. I gave them the same speech. When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare they weren’t happy, I didn’t get the same response. That’s ok, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that’s just fine. But I hope people understand this, 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. But don’t forget nothing is really free. It has to paid for by people in the private sector creating goods and services, and if people want jobs more than they want free stuff from government, then they are going to have to get government to be smaller. And if they don’t want to repeal Obamacare they are going to have to give me some other stuff they are thinking about cutting, but my list takes Obamacare off first and I have a lot of other things I am thinking of cutting.
This Romney message about what “they” want was a racial dog whistle and there is no need for Romney to explain to his base supporters who “they” are. The message is understood by all.
Black and brown people were demonized all throughout the long Republican primary, with Newt Gingrich frequently referring to President Obama as the “food stamp president” in many ways returning to the “welfare queen” language of the Clinton years. While Romney has mostly avoided directly stroking racial bias, his comments in Montana and his willingness to appear alongside Donald “Birther” Trump is sending a clear message to simultaneously to both black Democratic voters and the white Republican base.
And yet Romney’s attempt at a clever rouse to give the impression — to middle of the road voters — that he cares at all about issues that impact African-Americans is as transparent as can be. If only Mitt Romney could be this transparent about the mysterious contents of his tax returns.
Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @zerlinamaxwell