Campaign politics is all about pandering. You can’t expect a candidate to show up to talk anything but drivel when his survival is on the line.
But not always. Mitt Romney showed up this week in Houston to speak to the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some people thought he was brave; others that he was merely foolish and wasting his time.
The stage was set for a Republican calamity. Earlier in the week, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. delivered a race-baiting speech that would have done a Democratic pol in the Old South proud. He put the crowd surging into the aisles, howling their appreciation.
He defended the Justice Department efforts to block laws in more than 30 states to require voters to show some sort of identification before getting a ballot: “The arc of American history has always moved toward expanding the electorate. It is what has made this nation exceptional,” he said. More rafter-raising cheers from the delegates (who were required, by the way, to show ID to get into the hall).
The attorney general likened voter-identification requirements, enacted to prevent unqualified voters from stuffing ballot boxes with illegal votes, to the Jim Crow-era requirement in most Southern states to pay a poll tax (usually a dollar) to cast a ballot. Mr. Holder, a lawyer, was clearly basing his comparison on hearsay evidence. Voter-ID is required in many states a long way from Dixie, and it’s nothing like a poll tax. The usual forms of identification a driver’s license, an employer’s identification is all that is required in states with voter-ID laws, and, as in Texas, where the Justice Department is at the moment in court attacking the requirement that the states provide an identification card for free.
If the right to vote is, as the attorney general says, a citizen’s “most precious right,” it ought to be precious enough to take the trouble to get free and proper identification. Anyone who wants to drive a car, cash a check or buy a bottle of beer has to be prepared to go to such trouble.
Mr. Romney obviously knew he wouldn’t raise the rafters with anything approximating cheers, but showed up, anyway, to do what politicians, editorial writers and civics teachers say we all should do — address respectful arguments to those who disagree with us. Didn’t someone say that’s the American way? He paid the crowd the compliment of addressing them as grown-ups in a speech that was direct, assertive and dispassionate. He told them that he, not Barack Obama, was really the one they have been waiting for.
“If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him.” No cheers, but when the scattered booing subsided, he said: “You take a look.”
He repeated his promise to repeal Obamacare, citing its threat to the economy and taking note of the 14 percent black unemployment rate, using the shorthand nearly everyone uses to describe the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. He appeared surprised by some of the boos that rained down on him. He would learn later, from pundits, bloggers and other busybodies on the left, that the term “Obamacare” is racist. No one explained how and why that could be.
Right on cue, Nancy Pelosi, fresh from Barney Frank’s wedding reception where she scandalized the guests by dancing with a man, accused Mitt Romney of arranging the derision and contempt he got in Houston: “I think it was a calculated move on his part to get booed at the NAACP convention.”
Others in the media chorus quickly picked up the theme. Lawrence O’Donnell of cable-channel MSNBC called the Romney speech part of a “Southern strategy” to appeal to “racial and racist voting.” One of the O’Donnell guests accused Mr. Romney of being “culturally ignorant” for describing a black colleague as having served in his “kitchen cabinet,” or inner circle of advisers, when he was the governor of Massachusetts. “To talk about being in the kitchen and not talk about an African-American actually being in your Cabinet is really not a good metaphor to use with African-Americans.”
Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who once boasted to a Virginia audience that Delaware was a slave state, too, arrived just before closing time in Houston, and, as if auditioning for a post-Obama job as a stand-up comic, told a packed house of delegates successfully disguised as empty seats that all their fears would come true if they didn’t vote for Mr. Obama.
The president campaigned in 2008 as the post-racial candidate. But that was a long, long time ago.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.