Wow. If you live long enough, you’ll see some truly gross things in politics, but Mitt Romney’s work this past week "courting black support" was enough to turn even the strongest stomach.
Romney really showed us something in his luridly self-congratulating N.A.A.C.P. gambit, followed by the awesomely disgusting "free stuff" post-mortem speech he delivered the next night in front of friendlier audiences. The twin appearances revealed the candidate to be not merely unlikable, and not merely a fatuous, unoriginal hack of politician, but also a genuinely repugnant human being, a grasping corporate hypocrite with so little feel for how to get along with people that he has to dream up elaborate schemes just to try to pander to the mob.
At first, it was hard to say what exactly Romney was thinking when he decided to address the N.A.A.C.P. He plunged into the speech with a creepy kamikaze smile and a rushed, weird (even for him) delivery, acting like someone proud of what a ballsily moronic dare he was attempting – like a high school kid mooning a squad car from the back of a school bus, or Peter McNeeley rushing face-first into the ring with Mike Tyson.
Now, it would have been one thing if Romney had put some real thought into this, if he had taken a day or two or three and really pondered the question of why 90% of black voters vote Democratic. That’s a serious question, and it would have been something if Romney had really attempted to bridge what has turned into a disturbingly ugly gap between most nonwhite Americans and political conservatives.
Without accepting blame or admitting guilt, he could have talked about the increasingly strident tone of the national debate over racially charged issues, and wondered aloud if politicians on both sides perhaps needed to find a new way to talk about these things without fearmongering, stereotyping, or trading accusations. He could have met the racial-tension issue head on, in other words, and simply declared it to be something that both parties need to work on. This was an opportunity to make history as a peacemaker, just by saying out loud the simple truth that white and nonwhite Americans, and Democrats and Republicans both, need to find more civilized ways to talk about their political concerns. If he had owned the problem, that would have been a big step forward, for all of us.
Of course, that’s expecting a lot. But even if he had just come up with a fresh, earnest new way to articulate the conservative argument, something beyond the usual sloganeering, that would have been really interesting.
But he didn’t. He came out with the same half-assed, platitude-filled stump speech he usually doles out at campaign stops, literally the same exact speech, only he added quotes from Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Hooks, and Dr. King. As he told a mostly white audience in Montana the next night: “I gave them the same speech I am giving you.” He seemed almost proud of the fact that he didn’t put any extra thought into what he was going to say in his first big address to black America. If some speeches feel like a verbal embrace, Romney’s felt like a stack of cardboard emptied from the bay of a dump truck.
So given that he didn’t say anything new in the speech besides what he always says – government is the enemy of all life forms, we can’t blame the rich, etc. – the true meaning of the speech had to be in the very fact that he gave it in the first place. So what was he trying to accomplish? Surely he didn’t think he was going to be getting converts by promising to repeal “Obamacare,” crush teachers’ unions, and “help those who need help.”
No, he delivered those lines like a man expecting, maybe even wanting to get booed. And sure enough, after the event, it was hard not to notice how gleefully Fox and Hannity and the like played and replayed the video of the Mittster gamely dying on the cross of racial outreach. The rhetorical theme on those outlets was something like, “This is what happens when you promote the cause of free enterprise and self-sufficiency in front of the N.A.A.C.P.!” As Charles Blow in the New York Times put it:
The speech sounded like it was designed not for the audience in the room, but for those in Republican living rooms.
It sounded as though he wanted to show force and fearlessness: “Look folks, I walked into hostile territory unafraid and unbowed.” This was his version of a Daniel in the lions’ den speech.
Talk tough. Get heckled and booed for telling the truth to those who don’t want to hear it. Take the president down a couple of pegs in front of the most loyal segment of his supporters…
So Romney did that, and then the next night he went to Montana and he discussed the experience in front of a friendlier audience. And this is what he said:
When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare they weren’t happy, I didn’t get the same response. That’s O.K, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that’s just fine…
But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy — more free stuff.
So now this is the message: I tried to reason with the blacks, I really did, but it turns out they just want a free lunch.
How’s that for bridging the racial divide? Time to wake up the Nobel committee in Oslo!
As far as free lunches go, we of course just witnessed the biggest government handout in history, one that Romney himself endorsed. Four and a half trillion dollars in bailout money already disbursed, trillions more still at risk in guarantees and loans, sixteen trillion dollars in emergency lending from the Federal Reserve, two trillion in quantitative easing, etc. etc. All of this money went to Romney’s pals in the Wall Street banks that for years helped Romney take over companies with mountains of borrowed cash. Now, after these banks crashed, executives at those same firms used those public funds to pay themselves massive salaries, which is exactly the opposite of “helping those who need help,” if you’re keeping score.
That set of facts alone made the “free stuff” speech shockingly offensive. But the problem isn’t just that Romney’s wrong, and a hypocrite, and cynically furthering dangerous and irresponsible stereotypes in order to advance some harebrained electoral ploy involving white conservative voters. What makes it gross is the way he did it.
Romney can’t even be mean with any honesty. Even when he’s pandering to viciousness, ignorance and racism, it comes across like a scaly calculation. A guy who feels like he has to take a dump on the N.A.A.C.P. in Houston in order to connect with frustrated white yahoos everywhere else is a guy who has absolutely no social instincts at all. Someone like Jesse Helms at least had a genuine emotional connection with his crazy-mean-stupid audiences. But Mitt Romney has to think his way to the lowest common denominator, which is somehow so much worse.
Most presidents have something under the hood – wit, warmth, approachability, something. Even the most liberal football fan could enjoy watching an NFL game with George Bush. And even a Klansman probably would have found some of LBJ’s jokes funny. The biggest office in the world requires someone who buzzes with enough personality to fill the job, and most of them have it.
But Romney doesn’t buzz with anything. His vision of humanity is just a million tons of meat floating around in a sea of base calculations. He’s like a teenager who stays up all night thinking of a way to impress the prom queen, and what he comes up with is kicking a kid in a wheelchair. Instincts like those are probably what made him a great leveraged buyout specialist, but in a public figure? Man, is he a disaster. It’s really incredible theater, watching the Republicans talk themselves into this guy.