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Racial Puzzles in Presidential Politics

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It may have been a bit surprising when the NAACP held its national convention and Mitt Romney showed up. Romney, as comedian Reggie Brown put it, is "what people who hate white people think of when they think of white people." He's likely to do about as well among black voters as he is among Wiccans.
But there he was, taking precious campaign time in a vain and even humiliating search for votes. Naive folly or an excess of ambition on his part? Not quite.
Candidates normally put a high priority on assuring enthusiastic receptions and supportive audiences. Campaign managers typically prefer to avoid the risk of making the boss look unpopular. Sometimes, however, that risk is not a bug but a feature.
Republican presidential candidates never do well among African-Americans. Yet John McCain addressed the NAACP in 2008, as did George W. Bush eight years before.
They didn't accomplish anything in the way of winning over the delegates, and neither did Romney. So why did they go? Because they weren't trying to get the votes of blacks.
They were trying to get the votes of whites, particularly independent moderates who have a strong aversion to anything that smacks of racial prejudice -- something not quite extinct among the GOP rank-and-file.
By presenting himself to the nation's premier civil rights group, Romney signaled his aversion to bigotry without embracing any policies favored by the Congressional Black Caucus. With a college-educated suburban woman who dislikes Rush Limbaugh, say, the gesture could only help his cause.
But things may have worked out even better than that. By condemning Obamacare, Romney offered doubters a rare sighting of the Romney backbone. By reaping a chorus of boos, he strengthened his standing among hard-line conservatives who regard the NAACP as anathema. It was political jiu-jitsu, turning a weakness to his advantage.
While Romney was confronting his foes, Obama was avoiding his friends. Though he has spoken at past conventions, including last year's, the president sent Joe Biden in his stead. Press secretary Jay Carney cited scheduling conflicts and said cryptically that his boss was busy working to help "all Americans."
The nation's most prominent black group convenes, and a brother can't be bothered? Maybe this is what actor Morgan Freeman was getting at the other day when he volunteered, "He's not America's first black president; he's America's first mixed-race president."
Rabid right-wingers imagine Obama as a militant, white-hating champion of black power and racial reparations. In fact, he has always underplayed his skin color, and he has generally steered clear of racial appeals. On the rare occasions when he has waded into racially tinged controversies, Obama has sometimes gotten burned.
In 2009, after a black Harvard professor was arrested by police who took him for a burglar, the president said the cops had acted "stupidly" and noted "there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."
After a flurry of negative reactions, the president was forced to retreat -- expressing regret for his choice of words and inviting the professor and the arresting officer to the White House for a "beer summit."
This year, after George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin, Obama said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." That comment elicited ostentatious outrage from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the latter of whom accused him of "divisive rhetoric." Obama's comment played into the hands of those who would like to portray him as a sworn enemy of anyone with a pale complexion.
Staying away from the NAACP isn't likely to cost Obama any African-American votes, but it serves to assuage fears among whites that he may owe too much to liberal black interest groups. He knows drawing attention to his complexion is a net liability.
Such considerations explain why he was willing to address the June convention of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Oh, it might generate a few Hispanic votes. But that was not all Obama was after.
His decision not to deport immigrants who arrived illegally as children is popular with independents, and it presents a flattering contrast to the hostile attitudes of many Republicans. His appearance reminds voters of his cross-racial approach. It's all upside.
In the course of a long campaign, presidential candidates speak to all sorts of people. But sometimes, the people they're addressing are the ones who aren't there.


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