It turns out that the many headlines today announcing, as the New York Times did, "Romney Makes a Push for Black Voters," were premature and possibly just plain wrong, although reporters and headline writers are to be forgiven for assuming that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accepted an invitation to speak at the NAACP because he wanted to reach out to African-American voters. Romney did in fact speak at the august civil rights groups' annual conference in Houston, but he was targeting white conservative voters nowhere near the convention hall.
That helps explain the arresting moment when Romney invoked Republican slang for the first black president's health care plan and reminded the crowd that he would repeal "Obamacare." The audience booed, loudly and for several seconds, which, when combined with the optics of Romney's forced, pained smile, felt like minutes.
There will be a great temptation to call the moment a monumentally bad political miscalculation by Romney's campaign, but I don't buy it.
There is simply no evidence to support the notion that Romney or his handlers are not smart enough or savvy enough to understand the potential fallout of their decision to use today's venue to discuss repealing the president's signature domestic initiative, one that makes two changes heralded by black voters - an end to exclusions based on preexisting conditions and the creation of community health centers in underserved neighborhoods.
There is, however, ample evidence showing that the weakest element of the GOP coalition for Romney has been and continues to be the tea party and predominately white conservative voters. If, since being shunned by this faction during the primaries, out-Santorumed at nearly every turn, Romney needed a singular moment to rally these important base voters, he found it today. Expect the video to be played again and again at tea party rallies and closed, cocktail-hour fundraisers for Romney.
Perhaps his staff will want to distribute at tea party events, this comment from NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, circulated after Romney's speech ended:
"While we are glad that Governor Romney recognized the power of the black electorate, he laid out an agenda that was antithetical to many of our interests. His criticism of the Affordable Care Act -- legislation that will improve access to quality health care for millions -- signals his fundamental misunderstanding of the needs of many African Americans."
Sure Romney did himself no favors with black voters, and his speech will be compared unfavorably to Republican nominee John McCain's elegant 2008 appeal to the NAACP. Like McCain, Romney spent the lion's share of his remarks dwelling on the how bad the economy has been for African Americans, whose rate of unemployment tops 14 percent compared to a national rate of just over 8 percent. And like McCain, Romney devoted a large portion of his speech to a discussion of ways to break the cycle of poverty through better education.
But McCain largely avoided criticizing Obama. And he was rewarded with astronomical losses among blacks; Obama secured 95 percent support from that group. In spite of an economy that is especially hard on minority voters, Obama is still polling at over 90 percent with blacks. Romney can hardly expect that to change between now and November. What he can change is how fired up the Republican base gets between now and then. And to that end, the NAACP's boos were music to his ears.