Commentary: Romney Fails at "Sister Souljah Moment" in NAACP Speech

Instead of standing up to the base of his own party, as Bill Clinton famously (or infamously) did in 1992, Romney stood up to the base of his opponent's party.

Posted: 07/11/2012 03:11 PM EDT
Keith Boykin, Mitt Romney Booed

When Mitt Romney strode confidently into the auditorium at the NAACP convention in Houston Wednesday morning, everything seemed to be going surprisingly well.

A Republican presidential candidate running against America's first Black president was about to speak at a convention of the nation's most famous Black organization.

What could possibly go wrong?

The NAACP greeted Romney's entrance with an old-school church-organ riff and seemed to thank him just for showing up to meet with a group Republicans often ignore. But a few minutes into Romney's speech, things went from good to bad.

In what was probably meant to be a stronger line, Romney casually noted that he would "eliminate expensive non-essential programs like Obamacare." And then he quickly rushed off to finish his sentence before anyone would notice. But they did notice. As the words sank in, the members of the audience booed Gov. Romney. But don't be fooled. This speech is exactly what the Romney campaign wanted.

Romney knows 95 percent of Blacks will vote for President Obama, but today's speech was never intended to appeal to African-American voters. It was designed to reach swing voters, some of whom may give the former Massachusetts governor extra credit for looking like he's inclusive. Some white moderates may feel better about voting against the nation's first Black president when they see the white Republican alternative speaking to a Black audience. "Well, at least he tried."

But the speech was also targeting conservative Republicans, a group that still harbors some distrust of the former Massachusetts governor. Getting booed at the NAACP convention provided an excellent opportunity for Romney to prove his "street cred" to the right-wingers and the Tea Party crowd.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the conservative National Review quickly praised Romney for his "strong appearance" before the NAACP, and Fox News published the full transcript of Romney's NAACP speech immediately after he left the stage. This was not an accident.

The National Review's Jim Geraghty lauded Romney for "articulating conservative principles" to the NAACP. It was almost like Mitt Romney's "Sister Souljah moment." Except that instead of standing up to the base of his own party, as Bill Clinton famously (or infamously) did in 1992, Romney stood up to the base of his opponent's party.

The result was classic Romney doublespeak, trying to appeal to anyone and everyone to get elected. Early in the speech he pledged to "represent all Americans, of every race, creed or sexual orientation." Later in the speech, he repeated his opposition to LGBT equality and vowed to "defend traditional marriage."

One moment, he praised his father, who "helped write the civil rights provision for the Michigan Constitution." The next moment, he was attacking labor unions as "destructive." He never mentioned that his father, an auto executive, believed in Detroit and didn't want it to go bankrupt, as his son did. Nor did he mention that his father released 12 years of tax returns when he ran for president, which the younger Romney refuses to do.

At times, Romney sounded completely delusional. "If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you're looking at him," he told the crowd. But he never mentioned that his policies of cutting government jobs and cutting back on education spending would disproportionately hurt African-Americans, who are more likely to be employed in the public sector and less likely to hold college degrees.

"I can’t promise that you and I will agree on every issue," Romney admitted. "But I do promise that your hospitality to me today will be returned." I'm not exactly sure what he meant by that. The audience, which had booed Romney several times, gave him a standing ovation as he left the stage.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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