Romney’s NAACP Speech: A Racial Kaleidoscope

Mitt Romney gave a speech to the NAACP in Houston yesterday, producing a vivid array of polarized reactions.

In the Washington Post, Michael Moynihan congratulated Romney "for entering the lion’s den, getting briefly hooted down by a hostile crowd, and keeping your composure." In Moynihan's telling, the candidate's speech before a crowd of confirmed Obama partisans was an act of personal courage.  Well, personal courage bolstered by a bit of political calculation:

"This seemed to be an appeal to independent white voters," Moynihan wrote, "the Romney camp underscoring their man’s willingness to reach across the aisle and, by implication, to show that he isn’t a zealous tea partyer interested in expanding the partisan divide."

Writing in the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky didn't see Romney as a "zealous tea partyer" so much as a "race-mongering pyromaniac." Race-baiting, Tomasky said, was the whole point of the speech, which was engineered to show Romney staring down a sea of black faces and offering them nothing but an insulting reference to "Obamacare," which elicited the desired boos from the crowd.

Hey, it worked for Rush Limbaugh, who rallied to Romney’s side, opined that the  speech went “over" the audience's heads and attributed the boos to the fact that Romney is white.

Here's how the candidate himself subsequently characterized the speech, speaking to supporters yesterday at a Romney fundraiser:

By the way, I had the privilege of speaking today at the NAACP convention in Houston and I gave them the same speech I am giving you. I don’t give different speeches to different audiences, all right. I gave them the same speech. When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare they weren’t happy, I didn’t get the same response. That’s OK, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that’s just fine. But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy -- more free stuff. But don’t forget, nothing is really free. It has to paid for by people in the private sector creating goods and services, and if people want jobs more than they want free stuff from government, then they are going to have to get government to be smaller. And if they don’t want to repeal Obamacare they are going to have to give me some other stuff they are thinking about cutting, but my list takes Obamacare off first and I have a lot of other things I am thinking of cutting.

As in the 2008 presidential campaign, race has never been far beneath the surface of this one. Aside from income and status, Limbaugh is a pretty good stand-in for the cohort of white voters whom pollsters delicately call "resentful." If he was pleased with the theatrics of the speech, they probably were too. It seems equally plausible that independent white voters will credit Romney for entering territory perceived as hostile (how many instances of polite applause would be required to bump a single case of booing from the news?).

Shout out to the base? Check. Reach out to independents? Check.

There are as many ways to view the speech as there are racial attitudes in the U.S. But when Romney strategists looked into the kaleidoscope themselves, my guess is they saw a win.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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