By Dana Milbank
TAMPA, Fla. — At last week’s Republican National Convention, a pair of attendees found a novel game to play: They threw nuts at a black camerawoman for CNN and told her “this is how we feed animals.”
RNC officials evicted the tossers, who, like almost all of the delegates in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, were white. The Romney campaign condemned the antics as “deplorable” and “reprehensible.”
It’s good to know that some behavior on the far right exceeds Romney’s tolerance, but this episode of “animal” feeding was, well, peanuts compared to Romney’s broader issues with racial minorities. In his acceptance speech Thursday night, Romney became more than the Republican Party’s nominee; he became its zookeeper. To win the presidency and to become a successful president, Romney must keep the animals in his own party in their enclosures — and that’s no easy task.
Hours before Romney’s speech, about 100 Republican delegates from the Western states assembled for a “special reception with elephants” at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, hosted by Gov. Jan Brewer and the Arizona GOP. There, in the faux-adobe Safari Lodge, delegates mingled with Chanel the East African crowned crane, Pita the South American porcupine, Bo the African martial eagle — and Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz.
Arpaio, you’ll recall, is the guy who claims Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery, who calls for the arrest and deportation of the millions of illegal immigrants, who is under indictment for racial profiling, and who has been an outspoken champion of the Arizona immigration crackdown largely invalidated by the Supreme Court.
At the zoo, Arpaio argued that there is no daylight between him and Romney. “The governor’s stance corresponds with my stance,” the sheriff said. “Everything he says, I agree with him.” He further boasted that he was Romney’s “campaign guy in Arizona” in 2008 and that he conferred with Romney during this year’s debates, during which Romney buried other opponents for being insufficiently tough on immigration.
Arpaio justifiably took credit for establishing the party’s position on immigration. “I don’t know how to say this without being egotistical,” he said, but “I have a lot of support across the nation from all these delegates.” Asked if he was hurting Republicans, he scoffed. “If I’m hurting the party, why did all the people running for president either visit my office or call me?” he asked. “And they all want my endorsement.”
He’s right — and it’s a shame Romney won’t send Arpaio where convention officials sent the nut throwers. Romney needs urgently to broaden his appeal beyond the white faces on the convention floor, and he made a nod in that direction in his acceptance speech, reminding delegates that “we are a nation of immigrants.” Romney’s advisers filled the program with non-white leaders such as Marco Rubio, Condi Rice, Ted Cruz and Nikki Haley.
But such gestures are easily undone by others. Romney has long lacked the courage to stand up to the more dangerous beasts on the right, from birther Donald Trump to the woman who accused President Obama of “treason.” In some cases, Romney has encouraged these sinister elements, with his recent quip in Michigan that “no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate” and his false claim that Obama is gutting welfare requirements. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews got into a tense standoff with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus last week when he accused Romney of playing the “race card.” Priebus called that “garbage.”
No, “garbage” is what Arpaio was tossing around at the zoo on Thursday afternoon. The sheriff let everybody know “my mother and father came from Italy — legally, of course.” And he gave them an update on Obama’s birth certificate. “We’re just looking at forged documents,” he said. “Fraud, that’s what we’re looking at.”
He discussed his round-‘em-up views on illegal immigrants, he voiced his opposition to driver’s licenses or other benefits for the children of illegal immigrants and he assured his audience that Romney was of like mind. “He’s not just talking,” Arpaio said. “I’m convinced that the first year at the White House he will bring this issue out.”
It’s easy to dismiss Arpaio as, er, nuts. He went on a paranoid rant about how “I’ve got demonstrators I hear out there. … They’re the same ones who go in front of my church.” But there wasn’t a single demonstrator outside.
Romney should be making clear that Arpaio doesn’t speak for his Republican Party any more than the nut throwers. Instead, the sheriff wore a convention floor pass that said “honored guest.”
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.