The wrong question was being asked, and answered, quite a bit within the political media about Mitt Romney's Wednesday speech at the NAACP convention. I even answered it myself on Twitter, with a resounding "no," in so many words. I'll repeat it here more succinctly: Romney didn't deserve any special credit for getting up in front of an NAACP audience to give what amounted to his stump speech flavored with a sizable helping of patronization.
Perhaps standards were too low, and not just because he is the presumptive nominee of a party whose idea of African American outreach is telling people to vote for Romney. That's less than even former RNC chair Michael Steele had ridiculed them for doing. And we're supposed to give the Republican candidate dap when he bothers to merely show up before the NAACP? I'm reminded here of something Chris Rock said, and I'm not talking about some tweet. When you're this far in the hole with black voters that you're down to importing them to an NAACP speech, and claiming that you have secret ones in tow, giving a speech is the least a Republican candidate should be expected to do.
What seemed a more urgent question is, what would Romney actually say? He'd already had a problematic history with the organization in his days as governor of Massachusetts, so how to go about this? it didn't go well, certainly, when he told the crowd he'd repeal "Obamacare," the President's signature achievement -- thereby, in a sense, invalidating the first and only term of an African American President -- they booed him to kingdom come.
Since even he had to know he'd be short on the truth when it came to actual policy, Romney decided to just let the NAACP folks know what was best for them: him.
"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."
There's another post to write about the egoism of that, but in that last line, lies the rub. "You would vote for me for President."
Let's say, for the sake of argument, Mitt Romney were the best candidate for African Americans. I mean, leaving a great deal of the Republican platform and what Romney said later Wednesday night (we'll get to that) aside, it's a debate worth having (if not simply for entertainment purposes only). But you can hardly read about Romney's supposed effort to convince black voters that he's the one without tripping over some very important and damaging associations to what the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson called "an unconscionable crime." (And I'm not talking about Bain Capital, however long he was there.)
Rewind to the New York Times' Tuesday article entitled, "Romney Makes a Push for Black Voters":
Topping the list is a wave of voter identification laws that Democrats say will suppress minority participation in November. “We are living through the greatest wave of legislative assaults on voting rights in more than a century,” [NAACP President/CEO Ben] Jealous said Monday in his opening speech at the convention. “In the past year, more states have passed more laws pushing more voters out of the ballot box than at any time since the rise of Jim Crow.”
Romney was also following Attorney General Eric Holder's incendiary remarks to the NAACP the day prior, in which he referred to voter-ID legislation in Texas as "poll taxes" (the Department of Justice has previously noted the $22 fee which Texans would have to pay for a birth certificate, the lowest amount for any documentation that would bring them in compliance with the new law).
So what to do? Avoid the topic entirely, which is what Romney did. Never mentioned it once in his speech. Perhaps "ignoring the white elephant in the room" is not the best phrase to use when talking about a Republican speaking before the NAACP, but Romney pulled it off. I'd argue that nothing is more precious to the NAACP and to many African Americans than the right to vote. (That was only accentuated by the fact that, as The Atlantic's Molly Ball noted, the NAACP followed Romney's speech by immediately requesting that people phone-bank for voting rights.)
One wonders whether Romney's reticence might have to do with the fact that the voter-ID law in Pennsylvania -- the one a lawmaker there recently crowed would win Romney the state -- is already having a deleterious effect on voter outreach in the state. Add to that the news Philadelphia City Paper reporter (and past "MHP" guest) Daniel Denvir broke last weekend:
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's administration has signed a $249,660 contract with a company run by Mitt Romney fundraiser, former state GOP party executive director, pharmaceutical lobbyist, and school voucher advocate Chris Bravacos to direct a media campaign promoting the state's Voter ID law.
That Romney fundraiser's media campaign now has a pretty creepy ad featuring stock-photo Stepford voters in Pennsylvania all too happy to show their official state IDs in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote. But it is more curious than offensive, much like Romney's comments about the NAACP crowd later on Wednesday night at a Montana fundraiser, first reported by our own Rachel Maddow:
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.
That remark lines up cozily next to Ronald Reagan's 1976 exaggerated reference to a "welfare queen" on Chicago's South Side. And the fact that "free stuff" is rhetoric he uses in other speeches doesn't make this better. Context is everything, and it's plain that he was referring not just to people who support "Obamacare" (which I thought was a tax, which implies payment). He was directing that at the black voters for whom he supposedly is the best candidate. If that is the case, and his outreach to black voters were at all genuine, shouldn't he be doing all he can to make sure those voters can get to the polls.
That's the thing, though. If Republican outreach to African Americans supposedly consists of "vote for Mitt Romney," and folks are being held up by Republican laws and operatives from doing just that, something is amiss. And either they're counting on black voters to be too simple to figure it out, or don't care one whit if their intelligences are insulted by it. Yet some people want to give Romney credit for showing up?
Ed. note: be sure to catch Melissa sounding off on all the speeches at the NAACP convention this week, including Vice President Joe Biden's yesterday. She'll not only do so on our shows this weekend, but also today on msnbc in the 11am hour with guest host Craig Melvin. We'll post video of her appearance below when it becomes available.
Update: Melissa's "Sound Off" is below.