(The Root) — Last week presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's campaign caravan rolled up to the Universal Bluford Charter School in West Philadelphia. He used the occasion to talk with cherry-picked black school administrators, community leaders and teachers about education reform. In many ways, it was Romney's official introduction to urban America.
With the cameras rolling, the former prep school bully and Bain Capital CEO sat around a long table, rattling off accomplishments in education during his stint as Massachusetts governor. Then he hopped back onto his bus and rode past the hecklers ("It’s nice that he decided this late in his time to see what a city like Philadelphia is about…it's May," said Philadelphia mayor and Obama supporter Michael Nutter later), the rambling old houses and the liquor stores and back to the world of golf. The next day, the Romney campaign announced that it had hired Tara Wall, a conservative news commentator, as a senior communications adviser to handle outreach to African Americans.
Give Romney some credit for showing up in Obama territory. But it's hard to interpret his inner-city foray as anything more than a staged photo op. Republicans are very aware that the vast majority of African Americans are still behind Obama since his historic win in 2008. They probably won't even bother recasting George W. Bush's "compassionate conservative" play that resulted in a record 11 percent of black votes going to the GOP eight years ago, despite what Wall told theGrio last week: "The Obama campaign doesn't own the black vote. There are folks who want to hear from the other side."
Still, Romney's recent overtures all sort of seem like window dressing. While his Philly visit wasn't necessarily aimed at converting black voters, it was about showing Romney's ability to empathize with all Americans, especially those outside his orbit. He's perhaps realizing that empathy and inclusion should be fundamental traits for a modern leader.
We've got about five long months before voters head to the polls. There will be plenty of gaffes, talking heads sharing their opinions and miles logged for both candidates. One poll suggests that if the election were held now, Obama would win very narrowly.
There are indications that the president will have trouble with working-class white voters, which is partly why the Obama campaign recently dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Ohio to reassure middle America's voters. And it's debatable whether blacks voters will show up at the polls in record numbers, especially in swing states like North Carolina, Florida and Virginia. The country's mood may be as conflicted as it was nearly four years ago. It's hard to be optimistic when the official unemployment rate is around 8.1 percent and, truthfully, may be higher because so many people have simply left the job market.
Romney could pick a vice presidential candidate who energizes the conservative base, so it may be worth wondering what a Romney presidency might look like. You can get a sense of that reality from his most recent book, No Apology: Believe in America. It's boring and reads like a document shopped around to a team of strategists, rather than a piece that comes from the heart.
There is, however, clarity: Romney speaks from the ruling class. There's little doubt that a Romney presidency would mean sharply reduced government and market-driven solutions — which for some may sound great at first. But that approach could arguably put the financially vulnerable at greater risk of being left behind.
In last week's Philly visit, Romney recalled how, shortly after becoming governor, he faced a substantial achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. Advisers threw out a bunch of potential solutions. But, he recalled, "Just getting smaller classrooms didn't seem to be the key."
That comment drew a stern response from educators in the room. "I can't think of any teacher in the whole time I've been teaching, over 13 years, who would say more students would benefit them," said Steven Morris, a music teacher.
Romney added that the presence of Catholic schools in Boston made nearby public schools more competitive. The achievement gap between minority and white students was cut by nearly half while he was governor — partly because there were more charter schools, he also claimed.
Mayor Nutter held a press conference outside and later said on MSNBC that Romney had "gotten an F on … education." His assessment echoed a recurring sentiment that has followed the GOP nominee: that he's out of touch, even when he attempts to play like he understands the concerns of all Americans across disparate classes.
If there's one thing we should expect from the election of 2012, it's that Romney will have chances to connect with more than his built-in constituency. His biggest challenge remains how (and if) he'll ever be able to display a genuine commitment to sitting down at the table and listening to and learning about the Other America. And if he does, we have to be willing to entertain the dialogue.
Steven Gray is a contributing editor to The Root. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.
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