(The Root) — Mitt Romney has elevated the tactics of pandering, flip-flopping and endless reinvention to a level of high art — or vaudeville.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has long been accused of lacking "core" values. This assessment of Romney's dubious character has come from those on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Obama political adviser David Axelrod told CBS News in March: "There is a sense there is no core to him."
Republican Jon Huntsman concurred: "When you combine a record of uncertainty — running first [for] senator as a liberal, governor as a moderate, then as a conservative for the presidency — people wonder where your core is."
And after a relatively well-received speech on Wednesday to the NAACP, Romney proved what we already knew: The mirror has two faces. The former Massachusetts governor started by pandering only slightly, complimenting the organ music and appearing to identify with the soulful sounds. His demeanor appeared humble as he thanked the leaders and audience for their reception. The speech included quotes and references to the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass and former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks.
Romney made a bold proclamation: "If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you're looking at him." Comments like that were met with booing and were seen by many in the audience as a slight to President Obama, who retains high approval ratings among black voters. Yet Romney stood his ground and vowed to repeal "Obamacare," which he called "nonessential" and "expensive."
He sought to redeem himself by invoking memories of his late father, George, who as governor of Michigan spoke out against the ills of segregation in the 1960s. And despite being a member of the Mormon Church, which taught notoriously racist ideology and maintained barriers to the priesthood for all black people of the Diaspora, George Romney went on to become head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and pushed for housing reforms to assist African Americans.
Analysts, pundits and audience members alike questioned Romney's speech and the inherent imbalances in his message. Julian Bond, NAACP chairman emeritus, said that the speech was calculated for a broader white audience. "He's saying, 'Look here, I met with the Negroes. I talked to them. I argued my positions. I don't think they took them, but at least I showed up.' "
And herein lies the rub, because within hours of leaving the convention, Romney proved Bond's intuition correct. According to a pool report, at a fundraiser in Montana later Wednesday night, Romney told a conservative crowd that he didn't mind the booing. "I had the privilege of speaking today at the NAACP convention in Houston … when I mentioned I'm going to get rid of Obamacare, they weren't happy … that's OK," he said. "You remind them of this: 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."
This is where Romney's lack of core meets his Etch A Sketch candidacy. In the same vein as Ronald Reagan, who solidified Nixon's Southern strategy by creating the false image of a black welfare queen, Romney proved that he is not above using innuendo, race-baiting or dirty racial politics.
In fact, Romney's comments are most egregious for their lack of intellectual dexterity. He stole this playbook from the failed primary-campaign attempts of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who brazenly appealed to racially biased, disgruntled white voters in the South and Midwest.
Former House Speaker Gingrich boldly declared in January that if he were invited to the NAACP convention, he would discuss "why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." Santorum followed suit, speaking to a crowd ahead of the Iowa caucuses by saying that he didn't want to make "black people's lives better by giving them other people's money." (For his part, Santorum denies that he said "black people," insisting, instead, that he'd said "blah people.") In what Twilight Zone are such racially offensive comments allowed to be spoken by the nation's political classes?
As it turns out, the booing of the crowd serves Romney's interests because it sends a message to the Republican base that he was bold enough to condescend to the president in front of a black audience. Those who initially gave Romney credit for showing up to speak missed the point of his insidious strategy.
So what didn't Romney say? He spoke of education and the need for reform, but his plan to provide vouchers would effectively defund public schools and leave millions of black children trapped in poor schools with fewer resources. Paul Ryan's budget, which Romney supports, slashes funding for teachers and inner-city programs. Romney discussed high unemployment rates among African Americans but failed to mention 700,000 public-sector jobs (where the black community has traditionally been employed and achieved middle-class stability) that have been eliminated as a result of the Tea Party's insistence on austerity cuts.
Romney also ignored his own record. In 2009 he did not support President Obama's Recovery Act, which lifted more than 1.3 million black Americans out of poverty; and Romney infamously opposed the Detroit auto rescue, despite the industry's having been an engine for growth of the black middle class.
Romney didn't dare discuss institutionalized racism in criminal justice or the war on drugs, which has enslaved two generations of African-American males. Issues of racial profiling, stop and frisk and police harassment never passed through Romney's lips. The candidate didn't explain why he single-handedly dismantled Massachusetts' affirmative action laws just after taking the oath as governor. Nor did he offer an alternative plan for the 7 million uninsured black Americans benefiting from the Affordable Care Act, which he vows to repeal. Romney's "59-Point Economic Plan" would also raise taxes on 2.2 million African Americans because of the elimination of tax credits for working families.
In his speech at the Montana fundraiser, Romney claimed, "Nothing is free … it is paid for by people in the private sector, who are creating goods and services, and if people want jobs more than they want free stuff from government, then they are going to have to get government to be smaller."
Yet Romney benefited from corporate welfare during his time at Bain Capital — because of government subsidies. In one case, an Indiana district raised taxes on its citizens to fund a Bain Investment in Steel Dynamics, a local company. The company received $37 million in government grants, against $18.2 million from Bain. In another curious case, a Kansas City, Mo., company Bain invested in called GST Steel was expanded with the help of tax subsidies. GST subsequently went bankrupt — after Bain partners were paid "large dividends," according to the Los Angeles Times — and workers lost their jobs and pensions, leaving the federal government to bail out the pension scheme for $44 million.
These are the tales of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Romney.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that the Kansas City, Mo., district where GST Steel was located raised taxes on its citizens to fund the company.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing regularly on MSNBC, Al-Jazeera and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.