Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mitt Romney's Week: Part I

Mitt Romney has had a busy week. Two stories, both of which have the potential to cut both ways, have dominated the week’s coverage of the Romney campaign. Two posts: one per issue.

First, there was the appearance at the NAACP convention, at which Governor Romney was welcomed politely if skeptically. He got significant applause for a defense of “traditional marriage” (although also lumping sexual orientation in with race in a list of things that ought not to engender discrimination—I’m not sure how the distinction works). But, most famously—and whether this is by design, by conspiracy of the allegedly left-leaning press, or because (perish the thought) someone thought this was the most important development related to the speech, is not the subject of this post—he also drew boos for proclaiming, “If our goal is jobs, we have to stop spending over a trillion dollars more than we take in every year. So to do that, I’m going to eliminate every non-essential, expensive program I can find. That includes ObamaCare.”

Both sides have had a field day with this one—I won’t bother to cite the myriad encomia nor the equally ubiquitous condemnations. The fact is, this was entirely predictable. Governor Romney had to accept the invitation; President Obama did not, so he could send Vice President Biden in his place. Romney’s appearance may have been obligatory, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t take a certain amount of fortitude to enter that particular lion’s den: African Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats; even by those standards, they rallied behind candidate Obama four years ago for both good and superficial reasons; NAACP delegates are likely to be even more partisan than their fellow African Americans. It wasn’t going to be a politically friendly crowd.

Romney has been both praised (by the usual suspects, including himself) and criticized (also by the usual suspects) for delivering a standard stump speech—the same one, he crowed, as he gave the following night to a much friendlier crowd in Montana. So the question is: does he deserve credit for not pandering, or blame for not addressing his remarks specifically to the audience? Well, both… and neither… and he did, often, narrow his scope to those in the room.

Last point first: if he wasn’t really talking specifically to the NAACP, how do we explain this?:
If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone. Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way. The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community. In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent.
Or this?
Charter schools are so successful that almost every politician can find something good to say about them. But, as we saw in Massachusetts, true reform requires more than talk. As Governor, I vetoed the bill blocking charter schools. But our legislature was 87 percent Democrat, and my veto could have been easily over-ridden. So I joined with the Black Legislative Caucus, and their votes helped preserve my veto, which meant that new charter schools, including some in urban neighborhoods, would be opened.
I’m betting neither of these paragraphs appeared the following night to that virtually exclusively white crowd in Montana. The substance of the two speeches may have been fundamentally the same, but the argumentation, the examples, the focus was almost certainly different. And that’s fine.

But it also means that the “Obamacare” line was specifically crafted to be booed. Romney said later, after he’d scurried off to an interview with a fawning Neil Cavuto, that he’d “expected” to be booed. Expected, hell. He did everything possible to ensure it. No, it’s not racist to refer to “Obamacare,” but it is a term that, coming from a Republican, carries with it a tone of condescension. True, the President’s team has now embraced the term—as, for example, the term “queer,” originally a slur, is now self-applied by the members of that community—but it’s still problematic coming from an opponent. Want another example? Try taking the “CP” from the NAACP’s moniker and addressing the assembled delegates as “colored people.” These are, for better or worse, the rules of contemporary discourse, and Mr. Romney knows them as well as anyone else does.

Moreover, while I specifically disavow his conclusion that Governor Romney is a “race-mongering pyromaniac,” Michael Tomasky does have a point that context matters, and that the dismissal of the ACA (never called by its actual name) as “non-essential” and “expensive” without further argumentation could not have been designed for any other purpose by a sentient candidate than to be able to strut to disaffected whites a couple days later that you’re a tough guy who told those NAACP folks who want “free stuff” what they didn’t want to hear, meaning that all those charges of equivocation on a plethora of issues are over-blown or irrelevant:
The context is crucial, and the fact that it was mentioned in passing certainly does not absolve Romney because it was just one item on a list. Think of it this way: If you are trying to talk a friend or co-worker out of a position or belief that you consider to be ill-advised—if, that is, you are actually and earnestly trying to be in that person’s good graces and get through to them—you will make a calm and reasoned case and try to get your target audience to see things your way. You don’t just peremptorily denounce the position you know he is attached to as “non-essential” and say you’ll eliminate it and move on to point four. You would know that that would come across as both condescending and ineffective.
So, let’s review the bidding. Leaving aside the content of the speech per se, Governor Romney gets points for accepting the invitation from the NAACP, but loses some of them for being patronizing to his hosts. (They fare the same: credit for the invitation and the generally polite reception, points off for booing.) Romney did what he had to do, tried to put as good a face on it as possible, and engendered only the predictable negative responses. Still, it was, as NAACP president Benjamin Jealous put it, “a missed opportunity.” More substance, less glibness, and a little more respect would have gone a long way—not necessarily with NAACP attendees, but certainly with the nation’s undecided voters. Instead, Jealous suggests—not without reason—that Governor Romney was really playing to his base all along. Of course, that’s what politicians of every stripe do.

Final verdict: in both ethical and political terms, it’s a wash. I don’t see undecided voters moving appreciably towards or away from the Romney campaign because of this speech… nor should they.

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