Why Is Mitt Romney Addressing the NAACP Convention?

I generally question whether it is wise for Republicans to speak to groups like the NAACP. The NAACP has lost whatever moral standing it once had, and now is merely another left-wing pressure group. Making what comes off as a pilgrimage to ask for that organization’s approval tends to legitimize it, and it is hard to see what good can result.

That said, Mitt Romney’s speech–which he either has delivered or will give shortly–contains an appeal that is both candid and shrewd. He began by placing his appearance in a political context:

With 90 percent of African-Americans voting for Democrats, some of you may wonder why a Republican would bother to campaign in the African American community, and to address the NAACP. Of course, one reason is that I hope to represent all Americans, of every race, creed or sexual orientation, from the poorest to the richest and everyone in between.

But there is another reason: 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. I want you to know that if I did not believe that my policies and my leadership would help families of color — and families of any color — more than the policies and leadership of President Obama, I would not be running for president.

The opposition charges that I and people in my party are running for office to help the rich. Nonsense. The rich will do just fine whether I am elected or not. The President wants to make this a campaign about blaming the rich. I want to make this a campaign about helping the middle class.

I am running for president because I know that my policies and vision will help hundreds of millions of middle class Americans of all races, will lift people from poverty, and will help prevent people from becoming poor.

What follows is the part I like best. Most liberal African-American activists are obsessively committed to the idea that race discrimination not only exists but is a huge barrier to advancement of black Americans. This idea, whether true or not, is their meal ticket, and they will never give it up, no matter what the facts may be. But Romney, rather than challenging the convention’s cherished belief head-on, shrewdly made it part of his appeal for African-American votes:

If someone had told us in the 1950s or 1960s that a black citizen would serve as the forty-fourth president, we would have been proud and many would have been surprised. Picturing that day, we might have assumed that the American presidency would be the very last door of opportunity to be opened. Before that came to pass, every other barrier on the path to equal opportunity would surely have come down.

Of course, it hasn’t happened quite that way. Many barriers remain. Old inequities persist. In some ways, the challenges are even more complicated than before. And across America — and even within your own ranks — there are serious, honest debates about the way forward.

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.

Americans of every background are asking when this economy will finally recover – and you, in particular, are entitled to an answer.

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.

Romney highlighted the conflict of interest between the Democratic Party’s two most loyal constituents–African-Americans and teachers’ unions:

Charter schools are so successful that almost every politician can find something good to say about them. But, as we saw in Massachusetts, true reform requires more than talk. As Governor, I vetoed the bill blocking charter schools. But our legislature was 87 percent Democrat, and my veto could have been easily over-ridden. So I joined with the Black Legislative Caucus, and their votes helped preserve my veto, which meant that new charter schools, including some in urban neighborhoods, would be opened.

When it comes to education reform, candidates cannot have it both ways – talking up education reform, while indulging the same groups that are blocking reform. You can be the voice of disadvantaged public-school students, or you can be the protector of special interests like the teachers unions, but you can’t be both. I have made my choice: As president, I will be a champion of real education reform in America, and I won’t let any special interest get in the way.

Will Romney’s appeal work? Certainly not with the professional activists at the NAACP convention. And he won’t get any significant number of African-American votes if he doesn’t campaign in ways that most Republicans haven’t seen as cost-effective, e.g., advertising on inner-city radio stations. But it looks as though the Romney campaign will have the resources for that kind of effort. And he doesn’t need to get a lot of black votes; anything more than a handful could very well swing one or more battleground states. So maybe today’s appearance will prove worthwhile; but only if it is followed up with a sustained effort to make his case to African-American voters.

PAUL ADDS: Perhaps the main reason why candidates like Romney address the NAACP is to appeal to white moderates who are comforted when a conservative candidate reaches out to African-Americans. These white moderates have their heart in the right place (as does Romney, who himself has a moderate streak), but their view of NAACP is outdated, as John indicates. So I think it’s unfortunate that they like it when Republican presidential dutifully to appear before the NAACP. But that’s the reality, in my view, and there’s no use fighting it.