Romney Confronts the NAACP and Gets Booed

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The Republican candidate goes before an unfriendly audience of African-American activists and tells them things they don't want to hear.

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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.

While Romney once got in hot water for falsely claiming that his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, had marched with Martin Luther King Jr., George Romney was legitimately a civil-rights pioneer in the GOP. In 1967, at a time when the Republican base was ardently segregationist, George Romney launched his ill-fated campaign for the GOP nomination with a tour of impoverished neighborhoods across the country, against the wishes of his political advisers. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells recounted in New York recently:

Nobody in the Romney campaign, with the exception of George Romney himself, thought that beginning the fall of 1967 with a tour of the American ghetto was a very good idea. The national polls were getting worse, and in New Hampshire, site of the first primary, they were disastrous. The tour seemed strangely off-point; there was possibly not a single Republican vote to be won in Watts. But Romney himself seemed on a mission. "We must rouse ourselves from our comfort, pleasure, and preoccupations and listen to the voices from the ghetto," he said in one speech. It was, after all, his campaign. He went.

The trip required advance men for seventeen cities. In Saint Louis, Bill Whitbeck followed close behind as Romney disappeared into a housing project where a woman "poured out this tale of woe--son killed, daughter raped. A searing experience." In Washington, D.C., Romney met with Marion Barry; in Rochester, with Saul Alinsky, near portraits of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. "I am more convinced than ever before that unless we reverse our course, build a new America, the old America will be destroyed," he said.

Romney was talking into a vacuum. Republicans weren't interested in the problems of the ghetto, and the ghetto wasn't interested in Romney's solutions. On his tour, as the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice writes in Rule and Ruin, Romney was convinced that "independent citizens groups and local private-sector institutions could make a greater impact than federal programs in improving life in the slums." What stayed with his staffers was the loneliness of Romney in the ghetto, the earnestness of the endeavor but also its delusion.

Mitt Romney isn't quite as brave or as idealistic as his father. (He's also, perhaps not coincidentally, a more successful presidential candidate.) Nor is Romney likely to make much headway against the first black president in winning over African American voters, a demographic John McCain won just 4 percent of in 2008. That may not have really been the point; Romney may have chosen to speak to the NAACP more for the message it would send to white voters outside the hall, either tolerant folks impressed that he would make such a gesture of outreach or racists who relished the image of him confronting the blacks.

But Romney did venture into obviously hostile territory, and he told them things he knew they didn't want to hear. That's more than Obama can say. The president won't be addressing the NAACP this year. On Thursday, Vice President Biden will appear before the group in Obama's stead.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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