By Debra J. Saunders
NAACP members booed Mitt Romney when he spoke at the group’s annual convention in Houston on Wednesday. The audience heckled the former Massachusetts governor three times, once after he promised to repeal Obamacare if elected. It’s also true that the audience cheered Romney repeatedly, if not wildly.
Why did he bother to attend? Barack Obama won 96 percent of the African-American vote in 2008. It’s not likely that Romney will attract more than 10 percent of the black vote in November. The speech served as proof, Romney asserted, that if elected, he plans on representing “all Americans, of every race, creed or sexual orientation.”
(You know the GOP primary is over when Romney says that he wants to represent gay voters.)
The trick for any white Republican addressing the NAACP is to avoid sounding overly self-satisfied, condescending or phony. George W. Bush tried to bridge the GOP-NAACP divide by lamenting “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in public schools. Romney plainly said, “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.”
Romney laid out his economic plan. As president, he would approve the Keystone XL pipeline and other oil and gas projects to bring manufacturing jobs back to the country. He promised to reform Medicare and Social Security, in part by means-testing benefits.
Romney also noted that, however well-intended they may be, Obama’s economic policies haven’t brought jobs to the black community. Last month, while the national unemployment rate remained at 8.2 percent, African-American unemployment rose to 14.4 percent.
“Any interest group worth their salt would be screaming about” the black unemployment rate, observed Ward Connerly, the African-American author of California’s 1996 measure to end racial and gender preferences in state education and hiring.
Romney vowed to “eliminate every expensive nonessential program” he can find — “and that includes Obamacare.” When the crowd booed, he stood his ground by citing a Chamber of Commerce survey that found that nearly three-quarters of members said they were less likely to hire because of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
NAACP Chairwoman Roslyn M. Brock later responded that though the NAACP was pleased that Romney addressed the convention, “unfortunately, much of his agenda is at odds with what the NAACP stands for — whether the issue is equal access to affordable health care, reforming our education system or the path forward on marriage equality.”
Romney later told Fox News that he had expected to be booed but believes in carrying the same message wherever he speaks. MSNBC hosts and their like-minded guests hit Romney for not playing to the NAACP crowd, that is, for not pandering.
Actually, Romney reached out to like-minded NAACP members when he talked about strong families, economic opportunity and his abiding belief in God. He even won some applause when he vowed to “defend traditional marriage.”
Romney adviser Tara Wall said that though Romney “acknowledges that he will not get a majority of support from black voters, he also recognizes that President Obama can no longer count on the margins he once enjoyed.” She continued, “We aim to seize on those opportunities.”
This was one venue where Romney’s low-key manner worked well. The audience may have booed, but anyone who saw the speech knows that it was not because the plain-spoken Romney was being gratuitously divisive.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.