Romney to NAACP: If You Want Free Stuff (Trollface), Try Voting for the Other Guy

Mitt Romney should pick a trollface mask for vice president. It'll turn Reddit into a bad-art Möbius strip, and it'll give his campaign an identity it's lacked. Yesterday, he spoke to the NAACP national convention, stood firm on an issue, elicited boos and, hours later, embraced the boos in another speech. If the campaign were a message board, he might as well have closed with a Cam'ron-inspired "u mad?"

For 14 seconds, the NAACP audience booed Romney's pledge that he would repeal "ObamaCare." Later, speaking in Hamilton, Mont., Romney said, "If [Affordable Care Act supporters] want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff. But don't forget, nothing is really free."

Dance, puppets!

With that, a few hours and a second speech fundamentally changed the complexion of the first one. Early in the day, Mitt earned thumbs-ups for being willing to address the NAACP, a group with which he's clashed in the past. Bush ducked the opportunity until 2006, by which time his name was mud, and minorities' Gulf coast homes were under lots of the same.

Nobody would have faulted Romney for skipping the speaking slot; a loyal oppositional gesture promised few good outcomes. After all, he supports voter "fraud" reform that could strip the vote from 25 percent of African Americans. (If you live in a suburban neighborhood, open the front door and yell at the neighborhood kids. If you live in a big city, open your bedroom door and count your roommates. There, you've probably tallied the same number of genuine attempts at voter fraud that occur in your state.) How could he make a non-preposterous appeal for the NAACP to choose him when he supports obstacles to its members exercising that choice, obstacles that can deliver states for him?

It was funny, then, that he harped on choice in the speech. Slate's Dave Weigel pointed out this passage on education policy:

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.

It's a familiar, positive GOP talking point with minority audiences, because it focuses on the inefficiencies of "big government." Sure, there's all that boilerplate about charter and private schools—which are often more efficient at profitability and less so at education (not to mention this, this and this)—but the big idea is bringing market values and competing products to the inner city. Again, it's a curious proposition next to, "We're better off when these people don't have a ballot!" It totally makes sense, then, to let them fuck around with billions of dollars in educational funding. Maybe they can send kids to Full Sail—The Elementary School. Wonder who'd make money off that place.

He also went for economic empathy, trying to paint Obama as out of touch with African-American job concerns, citing a 14.4 percent unemployment rate, compared to an overall 8.2 percent unemployment rate. This strategy is of a piece with the GOP's "The REAL War on Women Is in Obama's Unemployment Lines!" talking point, which overlooks that blacks and women tend to have higher public-sector employment, which has been slashed by GOP governors, while further cuts are demanded by the GOP house. He also omitted how his tax cut for the wealthy would result in the loss of deductions often claimed by minority families—as well as whether his deficit-inducing tax cuts would be offset by cuts to services needed by lower-income minority families.

Still, before Romney dealt his troll card in Montana, you could have come away with a sense of futile sincerity from his speech. Take this oddball moment:

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.

Outside of echoing John Turturro in Miller's Crossing, this sounded most like a politician explaining how his doinking hairdressers strengthened his marriage. If you look at his behavior, it might confuse you, but if you could see the love he feels at home, there's no question about his sincerity. All that stuff just brought 'em closer together. He might as well have been apologizing for how he had to behave when running for president as a Republican. Yeah, there's been four decades' reliance on the dog whistle, the persistent "othering" of Obama, and cutting funding to the safety net, but I love you. I don't even like these guys, Romney's saying. Which is why I'm running to be their king.

There things might have remained, were it not for Montana. Romney could have been just a pitiable guy peddling white lies and standing on principle when he got booed. He had the strength of his convictions to go into "enemy" territory and say the unpopular thing. For once, he didn't flip flop. To the undecided voter, this says the right high-minded things. He told the truth; he was courageous; he suffered a backlash in quiet dignity. This is not the Romney the right likes to pick on.

But saying, "If they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff. But don't forget nothing is really free"—well, it changes all that. Like every other southern strategist's signal book, it has this basic message: these people expect free stuff and don't care where the money comes from (you). It changes the response Romney's "ObamaCare" comments received from stubborn talking point to a masterful troll.

Good poor folk just pull themselves up by their central nervous systems and work through a neurodegenerative disease. Lou Gehrig's big mistake was retiring. An enterprising person with high blood sugar would ask to be paid in insulin. If you're so hungry for life and didn't want to drink polychlorinated biphenyls, you could have been thirsty for Naya. "Hey!" (smacks coma patient) "rise and shine, lazybones."

When played before the right kind of racial audience, the NAACP outburst is priceless. Nobody's going to ask about care denied because of preexisting conditions (which might be environmental or genetic and entirely outside someone's hard-workin' gumption). Nobody's going to wonder how many black people will qualify for government assistance and how many will instead be forking over money to the wildly profitable private insurance industry. Instead, he told a black audience, in a formal setting, that "the free lunch" was over, and just look at those fourteen seconds of hootin' and hollerin'.

"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo?

Illustration by Jim Cooke.