The Republican candidate goes before an unfriendly audience of African-American activists and tells them things they don't want to hear.
The reception of Mitt Romney's speech to the NAACP on Wednesday wasn't all bad. There were numerous instances of polite applause -- for his generic pleas for inclusiveness, his vow to "defend traditional marriage," his support for charter schools.
So when the crowd in Houston booed him, you knew they were actually listening.
The first boos came when Romney referenced his opposition to health-care reform. "I'm going to eliminate every nonessential, expensive program I can find -- that includes Obamacare -- and..." The boos rose up like a tide, and Romney stopped to let them crest, grinning and nodding for a long 15 seconds. (As Politico's Ginger Gibson noted, Romney was also booed when he mentioned Obamacare at a recent Hispanic conference -- a reminder that the president's signature domestic policy achievement, though broadly unpopular, is cherished by the minority blocs of his base.)
A couple of minutes later, Romney made another unpopular move: He went negative on the president. Under his economic plan, Romney said, "jobs will come back to America and wages will rise again -- we have got to do it! And I know the president will say he's going to do these things, but he has not, he will not, he cannot, and his last four years in the White House prove it, definitively."
Interestingly, as the boos rose, Romney leaned into the crowd's hostility, going off-script to amplify the level of confrontation. The prepared text for that last line, which he was reading off a teleprompter, was somewhat milder: "The president will say he will do those things, but he will not, he cannot, and his record of the last four years proves it." Faced with an adverse reaction, Romney's instinct was not to back down but to get more aggressive.
The third round of boos came shortly thereafter. "If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you are looking at him," Romney said. This time, applause and boos overlapped, and Romney again went pugnaciously off-script: "You take a look!" he said.
The rest of the speech, including a paean to his father's civil-rights record, unfolded without incident. Taken as a whole, the speech was an amalgam of GOP stances cherry-picked for their supposed appeal to black voters (opposition to gay marriage, support for charter schools), rhetorical appeals to unity, and standard Romney stump-speech fare on his economic policy. He rolled out some new lines responding to the Obama campaign's recent attempt to paint him as out of touch and untrustworthy for not releasing more of his tax history: "The opposition charges that I and people in my party are running for office to help the rich. Nonsense. The rich will do just fine whether I am elected or not," he said at one point, and at another, "I have no hidden agenda." Romney's appeal for black votes was remarkably explicit: "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," he said.