Every Democratic or Republican president or presidential candidate since 1920 has either directly addressed the NAACP annual convention or sent a warm message. The ritual is even more imperative for the nation's top politicians to follow during a presidential election year. Former President George W. Bush was almost the lone exception. He addressed the conference as a candidate in 2000 and despite regular invites from NAACP officials ignored them for his entire first term and for three years into his second term. Each time, Bush took the easy way out and cited a scheduling conflict or simply didn't respond to the NAACP's invitation to speak.
Bush saw no personal or political gain in talking to or with civil rights leaders. GOP Presidential candidate John McCain did. He addressed the convention in 2008. But like Bush he had no illusions that any but a scant handful of the thousands of attendees would consider giving any support to him or the GOP. But it was a ritual that even conservative Republicans feel the momentary need to pay lip service to minority issues.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is no different. He has accepted the NAACP's invitation to speak at this year's mid July NAACP convention. He has absolutely no illusions that he'll sway anyone at the NAACP convention with his conservative anti- big government, health care reform law, pro Wall Street, anti-regulation, and less taxes for the rich and corporations pitch. But that's not why Romney will speak. He more than any other GOP candidate and that includes Bush has a racial image problem. It starts with his campaign team. Romney has the most lily white team of staff, advisors, donors, and endorsers of any GOP presidential candidate in recent memory. It didn't take a rash but candid quip from ousted Politico reporter, Joe Williams that Romney feels "comfortable" around white people to see that Romney hasn't exactly made diversity a watchword in his campaign. During the GOP primary campaign, Romney's racial blind spot was glaring when three of the four GOP presidential candidates managed to scrounge up some African-Americans to co-sign their campaigns. Romney was the only one who couldn't find even one African-American to endorse him.
Romney's goose egg in getting endorsements from black GOP officials, elected officials, any black Republican to endorse or even a few token black faces to stand behind him for stump photo-ops, was plainly apparent at his early campaign rallies, stage appearance and events. His lily white retinue of aides, campaign staffers, advisors, and bankrollers, not to mention endorsers was so noticeable that even black conservative and former Oklahoma GOP congressman J.C. Watts lambasted Romney for it. Watts challenged Romney for having a virtually lily white campaign staff.
Since then he has made a tepid, low keyed, effort to slightly spruce up his image. He has added a few black staffers and made a stilted, awkward photo-op appearance at a black charter school in Philadelphia.
But Romney has another aim in addressing the NAACP convention. That aim was hinted at in NAACP president Ben Jealous's announcement of Romney's acceptance of the organization's invitation to speak. Jealous said that he and the convention delegates want to hear what Romney's vision of a "more just society" is. That retrograde vision has already been well laid out and Romney's hope is that his smaller government, less taxes, pro big business message on jobs and growth will at worst not totally turn off the many business and professional oriented NAACP convention goers. And at best, maybe touch a sympathetic nerve in some. That sympathetic nerve is hardly likely to translate into votes from them for Romney. But it will at least not type him as someone who will be a relentless foe of minority advancement. This hopelessly marred relations between Reagan and George W. Bush and the NAACP during all of Reagan's presidency and much of Bush's.
The same kind of blazing hostility to Romney from the NAACP would virtually insure that NAACP delegates, supporters, and many blacks would turn their solid backing of President Obama into a virtual holy crusade to defeat Romney. In the 2008 election, the colossal numbers turnout of black voters was a major factor in tipping several hotly contested swing states to Obama.
There's another possible mild payoff for Romney in showing up at the NAACP convention. The rare times that Republicans have made any effort to attract blacks -- and that means putting money into a black Republican candidate's campaign and delivering on their promise to pump more resources into health care, education, minority business, and education programs -- they've slightly nicked the Democrat's lock on the black vote. Any drop-off, even a tiny single digit drop-off in the black vote numbers turnout in the must win states for Obama in November would hurt.
Romney's appearance at the NAACP convention is designed to show that he and the Republicans are not total hypocrites in talking outreach and then doing nothing about it. They are. But it's still reason enough for him to bother to address the NAACP convention.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.
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