Mitt Romney in the Lion's Den

Paul Greenberg

7/16/2012 2:21:00 PM - Paul Greenberg
Republican presidential candidates do not go to NAACP conventions to win votes. Any more than Christians went to the Coliseum to convert the lions.

It's more an act of martyrdom, a gesture of good will, a ritual offering to placate special interest. Neither the guest speaker nor his audience pretends that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- are we still allowed to say colored people? -- is Republican country.

The party of Lincoln lost its appeal to black voters sometime between Herbert Hoover's administration and Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy. And it's nobody's fault but the Republican Party's. Make people uncomfortable enough in your political party, inviting them to switch to the other, and sure enough they'll do just that. They can take a hint.

How different American politics would look today if the Republicans could count on the vast majority of black voters on Election Day, just as the Grand Old Party did for generations after the Civil War. Now, too many in that same party seem determined to snub Hispanic voters, too. And lose them for generations to come, too. Some folks never learn.

Mr. Romney was proceeding through his usual talking points on this occasion, and his audience was being its polite self, when he made the mistake of mentioning the topic at the top of the news for the moment, Obamacare.

Booooooo!

He'd touched a nerve.

At that point, Romney could have just plowed through the rest of his speech as the teleprompter fed it to him. Or he could have upped the volume a bit to drown out the booers. Or he could have given the crowd a scolding. The current occupant of the White House isn't above berating somebody who interrupts one of his speeches. Or telling off a captive audience, even if it includes justices of the Supreme Court at one of his State of the Union speeches.

Instead, this presidential candidate waited a beat, let the audience express its robust opinion, then actually went off-message, or at least off- teleprompter. His PR folks backstage probably needed medical attention.

But he pulled it off. He actually sounded human. He nodded his head, gestured (as if he were alive and not just a political mannequin), and spoke candidly:

"You know, there was a survey, there was a survey of the Chamber of Commerce. They carried out a survey of their members, about 1,500 surveyed. And, uh, they asked them what effect Obamacare would have on their plans. And three-quarters of them said it would make them less likely to hire people. So I say again, if our priority is jobs, and that's my priority, then that's something I'd change."

He didn't just continue reading his text. He didn't talk down to his audience. He didn't raise his voice. He didn't scold. He didn't kiss-up. He just talked to the people.

After that brief detour into human communication, the candidate went back to his talking points for the most part. For the most part. Because before he was through, Mr. Romney also touched on what is, was, and always will be the most important of topics for someone who wants to lead a great nation: the education of future generations. And this is what he said:

"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.

"I will give the parents of every low-income and special needs student the chance to choose where their child goes to school. For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted. And I will make that a true choice by ensuring there are good options available to all."

Romney's words couldn't have been any clearer or more needed. He pierced the empty platitudes that so often fog up the subject of education. Let others speak of reform while really promoting the same old inertia. The man took his stand. He refused to treat education as just another ineffective but expensive welfare program. He told some home truths -- as many of his listeners must have recognized. Whatever their prejudices against Republicans.

But the speaker soon enough returned to his script, and his audience to its golf claps. Yawn-inducing normalcy reigned again. But for a moment Mitt Romney had come alive; he had talked sense. It may have been his finest moment in this still young presidential campaign. If he's going to become the next president of the United States, he'll need many more such moments.