Michael Tomasky on Mitt Romney the Race Baiter at the NAACP

With his incendiary speech to the NAACP, Mitt crossed an ugly line. No longer simply spineless and disingenuous, he’s now become a race-mongering pyromaniac. Plus Mansfield Frazier on Romney's diversity problem.

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Until yesterday, I thought of Mitt Romney as a spineless, disingenuous, and supercilious but more or less decently intentioned person who at least wasn’t the race-mongering pyromaniac that some other Republican candidates of my lifetime have been. Then he gave his speech to the NAACP, and now I think of him as a spineless, disingenuous, supercilious, race-mongering pyromaniac who is very poorly intentioned indeed, and woe to us if this man sets foot in the White House as anything but a tourist.

Let’s bat the easy charges out of the way first. Spineless? Please. He’s taken every position the Tea Party base has asked and a few they didn’t. Disingenuous? Easy. Either he’s lying now about health care, abortion rights, his support for Ronald Reagan, and his posture toward Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge, or he was lying then. Supercilious? Seems appropriate and perhaps even a bit mild for a man who made fun of NASCAR fans’ rain ponchos and a working-class family’s cookie service.

But he wasn’t a race-baiter until yesterday. That speech wasn’t to the NAACP. It was to Rush Limbaugh. It was to Tea Party Nation. It was to Fox News. Oh, he said some nice things. And sure, let’s give him one point for going there at all. But listen: You don’t go into the NAACP and use the word “Obamacare” and think that you’re not going to hear some boos. It’s a heavily loaded word, and Romney and his people know very well that liberals and the president’s supporters consider it an insult. He and his team had to know those boos were coming, and Romney acknowledged as much a few hours later in an interview with . . . guess which channel (hint: it’s the one whose web site often has to close articles about race to commenters because of the blatant racism). Romney and team obviously concluded that a little shower of boos was perfectly fine because the story “Romney Booed at NAACP” would jazz up their (very white) base.

Blame the media for making such a big deal of it? Come on. When a candidate’s staffers are preparing a speech, they know very well exactly what line the press is going to lead with. Speeches are written with precisely that intent (or if they’re not, someone is sleeping on the job). The mention, for the record, was couched, with appropriate plausible deniability, in the middle of a list of five things he’d do to get the economy humming again. (Speech text here.) Point three concerned reducing government spending and bring down the debt: “To do this, I will eliminate expensive non-essential programs like Obamacare, and I will work to reform and save Medicare and Social Security, in part by means-testing their benefits.”

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.

Let’s imagine that in 2008 Barack Obama had spoken, oh, to the American Legion—that is, a strongly Republican assemblage—and had spoken of being anxious to get to Pennsylvania Avenue so he could end “Bush and Cheney’s wars.” In fact he did speak (via video) to the American Legion in 2008, and he talked about needing to end the wars, but he sure didn’t use any loaded phrases that he and his speechwriters knew would piss his audience off. Part of the difference is a clear difference in character between the two men. And part of it, of course, is that in our political discourse, pissing off veterans is as bad a mistake as you can make, while pissing off black people usually adds value.

In 2008, Obama made other appearances to tough crowds. Recall, as the writer Rich Yeselson reminded me yesterday, that he walked into a similar sort of lion’s den that year when he appeared at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church alongside John McCain. Obama may have been deluding himself in thinking that he could win over Warren’s flock, and he stated his positions on abortion rights and other matters clearly. But he somehow managed to walk out of the place without having hurled any gratuitous broadsides at his hosts.

We learned a great deal about Mitt Romney yesterday, and what we learned only adds to the picture of this little, plastic fellow who thinks he can get points from white moderates (as explained by an aide to BuzzFeed) by appearing at the NAACP while generating high-fives on the white right for rubbing dirt in the faces of its members while there. Did I earlier give him a point for going there at all? I hereby withdraw it. He went only to send “signals” to other constituencies entirely. I hope those swing voters he was partly aiming for become aware of just how badly he swung and missed on this one.