My first reaction to Romney's speech yesterday was, "Good for him. At least he showed up. That's more than some other Republican candidates have done." And then as I thought about it more, and as I watched the speech, I realized how silly it is to set the bar so low. Romney doesn't deserve credit for appearing before the most venerable civil rights group in our nation's history and offering a few platitudes. The bare minimum that should be expected is for Romney to offer up some policy proposals that would give black Americans reason to vote for him. Aside from some vague thoughts on charter schools and vouchers, which are as controversial within the black community as without, Romney did not do that.
In fact, there were several parts of the speech that were quite audacious -- in all the wrong ways. For instance, Romney said something along the lines of, "I believe that if you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it
were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real,
enduring best interest of African American families, you would vote for
me for president." This is a convoluted way of saying that, a) I'm actually a really nice guy and, b) I know better than you what your interests are and, c) I won't actually try to convince you of this because I can't.
Think about that. He's essentially saying to black people, "If you understood your long-term interests as well as I do, you would vote for me." On one level, this can just be read as the typical conceit of all politicians who have truly convinced themselves that their policies will work best for everybody. But it's more troubling in light of the Republican base, among whom it is an article of faith that black people are "brainwashed" or racists. Seriously, I know from personal experience, you can be talking to the sweetest people in the world and then the subject of black voting comes up and suddenly they're telling you that the Democrats have tricked blacks into voting for them or, worse, that black people simply prefer government assistance rather jobs and real prosperity. So by making the statement that he did, Romney appealed to that prejudice in his party's base.
The weirdest thing is that he just said it, and then in the rest of his vacuous speech didn't really attempt to communicate what exactly is in the "enduring best interest" of black families. If he honestly believes the interests of the NAACP audience should lead them to vote for him, why didn't he try to convince them?
I don't know; I may be reading too much into what is really just another campaign speech. But it bothers me all the same. At the end of his speech Romney praised the NAACP and talked about its "many victories" and assured us that the NAACP has many more victories in its future. He neglected to mention the fact that he is beholden to and cowed by a conservative base that resents groups like the NAACP who are trying to create equal opportunity. He failed to say that there isn't anything the NAACP would consider a "victory" that Romney's base wouldn't fight against tooth and nail.
So in the end, was Romney being courageous or respectful by appearing before the NAACP? No, just the opposite. It is cowardly and dishonest to assert that you know what is best for black Americans and that you have their interests at heart, while you refuse to speak out against your own party's systematic state by state campaign to reduce black voter turnout.
The usual way politicians try to appeal to various constituencies is to offer them something that they want, something they believe is in their interests. Had Romney spoken out against the Republicans' racially discriminatory vote suppression campaign, he would have garnered respect and, no doubt, even a second look from some black conservatives. But he didn't do that. Instead, Romney just asked black Americans to trust that his heart is in the right place. That's not good enough.