And like Daniel, Romney survived, but not without a few scratches.
Some delegates to the convention (the lions in my little political drama) pounced on Romney with a chorus of boos for his declaration to eliminate “Obamacare” and for his dramatic assertion that he would do a better job than President Obama has done when it comes to the issues important to African-Americans. What else should we expect from lions? Their job is simple: attack and eat their prey. But, it can also be said of Mr. Romney, if you know you’re going into the lions den, maybe you should think twice about provoking the lions.
It was a dramatic and historic moment for convention delegates to be sure (that had to be the first time they actually booed a presidential candidate). However, less dramatic but equally significant was the opportunity for many delegates to appreciate the importance of Romney “showing up” to share some insight into who he is and what he will do as president. At a minimum, his appearance stood to elevate their perception of the man who wants to be their president.
It was important for Romney, too, as it was not an opportunity to win over the Black vote but rather to deliver more than the typical political rhetoric and promises that sound good on paper — even if they don’t support you. Given that this NAACP audience was clearly on Team Obama, the bar was set pretty high.
And yet, rising to the occasion, Romney set a serious tone when he noted that he didn’t become the governor of Massachusetts (with 11 percent Republican registration) by “just talking to Republicans.” He wanted his audience to know that he was prepared to “make our case to every voter. We don’t count anybody out, and we sure don’t make a habit of presuming anyone’s support. Support is asked for and earned — and that’s why I’m here today.”
But Romney also pressed his point, noting that while his audience may understand it’s just smart politics to ask for their support they needed to know that as president he believed that “[his] policies and [his] leadership would help families of color…more than the policies and leadership of President Obama.”
Gutsy stuff for a guy who characteristically plays it safe. But that moment stood out because it committed Romney thereafter to do something very few Republicans ever do: take on the conventional wisdom that there is very little he could say to this audience short of some canned platitudes. And it quickly became clear he had few things he wanted to say.
Often remarks by Republicans before Black audiences careen off into a litany of phrases that are cut and pasted into the speech: “Party of Lincoln” — four or five times ... Reminders that Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican and invited Booker T. Washington to the White House … the Civil Rights Act was passed by Republicans over Democrat filibusters … oh, and one of my favorites, “Bull Connor was a Democrat.”
On the contrary, Romney indicted the nation’s first Black president in a way that rankled many in the hall when he noted “If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone. Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way. The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income and median family wealth are all worse for the Black community. In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent. If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, Black families could send their sons and daughters to public schools that truly offer the hope of a better life. Instead, for generations, the African-American community has been waiting and waiting for that promise to be kept. Today, Black children are 17 percent of students nationwide — but they are 42 percent of the students in our worst-performing schools.” Strong stuff.
And, as if to seal the moment, he concluded “Americans of every background are asking when this economy will finally recover — and you, in particular, are entitled to an answer.”
While I applaud Romney for elevating the game a bit, this was not a breakout moment in GOP-African-American relations. Consequently, I remain critical of the tepid efforts by Republican Party officials to get out of their comfort zone and actually do the hard work of committing time and resources to engage in honest dialogue with members of my community. Likewise, I remain disappointed that in the face of often damning statistics, my community has yet to leverage to its advantage the one thing both political parties value above all else: our vote.
But, as in all things, if we’re ever going to close the divide that exists between the Black community and the GOP, we have to start some place; and I guess Mitt Romney speaking before the NAACP is just as good a place as any.
Michael Steele served as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a political commentator. He will be providing commentary on all things politics for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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