(The Root) — In his speech at the NAACP Annual Convention on Wednesday, things started off well for Mitt Romney. Addressing the civil rights organization in Houston, the Republican presidential candidate acknowledged the gulf between the GOP and black voters.
"With 90 percent of African Americans voting for Democrats, some of you may wonder why a Republican would bother to campaign in the African-American community, and to address the NAACP," Romney said. "Of course, one reason is that I hope to represent all Americans, of every race, creed or sexual orientation, from the poorest to the richest and everyone in between.
"But there is another reason: 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."
With that, the former Massachusetts governor set off to explain how his policies and leadership will help black people more than those of President Obama. Ticking off the long-standing racial disparities around employment, income and educational achievement, he suggested that more African Americans ought to consider some alternatives.
"I'm hopeful that together we can set a new direction in federal policy, starting where many of our problems do: with the family," Romney said, citing a Brookings Institution study that found that graduating from high school, waiting until age 21 to get married and having children after marriage drastically reduce one's chances of being poor.
"Any policy that lifts up and honors the family is going to be good for the country, and that must be our goal. As president, I will promote strong families — and I will defend traditional marriage," he said to applause from the audience.
Romney went on to promote, to more applause, free enterprise as the key to economic growth and security. "I've never heard anyone look around an impoverished neighborhood and say, 'You know, there's too much free enterprise around here,' " he said.
"Free enterprise is still the greatest force for upward mobility, economic security and the expansion of the middle class. We have seen in recent years what it's like to have less free enterprise. As president, I will show the good things that can happen when we have more — more business activity, more jobs, more opportunity, more paychecks, more savings accounts."
Where Things Went Wrong
The polite tone of the NAACP audience took a sharp turn, however, as Romney began detailing his plan for cutting government spending. "I'm going to eliminate every non-essential, expensive program I can find — that includes Obamacare — and I'm going to work to reform and save — " Romney started before his sentence was cut short by an eruption of boos.
The phrase "Obamacare" probably wasn't the best to use in an NAACP-convention speech, and the notion that federally funded health care provisions for the uninsured poor are "nonessential" was similarly unpopular with the crowd. Romney grinned uneasily during the sustained show of disapproval, but he plowed through.
"You know, there was a survey of the Chamber of Commerce — they carried out a survey of their members, about 1,500 surveyed — they asked them what effect Obamacare would have on their plans, and three-quarters of them said it made them less likely to hire people," he said once the booing stopped. "So I say, again, that if our priority is jobs, and that's my priority, that's something I'd change and replace."
Romney continued that he would replace the Affordable Care Act with something else that would lower health care costs and provide care for people with pre-existing conditions, though he did not specify exactly what.
After summarizing his economic plan — "open up energy, expand trade, cut the growth of government, focus on better educating tomorrow's workers today and restore economic freedom" — the candidate contrasted his ideas with President Obama's record.
"The president will say he will do those things, but he will not, he cannot, and his record of the last four years proves it," he said, to another smattering of boos. "If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him. You take a look."
With his views on health care and President Obama getting him nowhere, Romney wisely shifted his focus to public-education reform. Beating the drum of school choice, he touted charter schools as an essential benefit for inner-city students in underperforming schools.
"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 they choose," he said. "And I will make that a true choice by ensuring there are good options available to all."
Romney also doubled down on his criticism of teachers unions for blocking education reform. "Candidates cannot have it both ways, talking up education reform while indulging the same groups that are blocking reform," he said. "You can be the voice of disadvantaged public school students or you can be the protector of special interests like the teachers unions, but you can't be both. I have made my choice. As president, I will be a champion of real education reform in America, and I won't let any special interest get in the way."
Winding down his remarks, Romney said that he knows that the Republican Party's record, or any party's record, is not perfect, and that he and the NAACP membership may not agree on every issue. But he promised that his speech was just the first step in an ongoing conversation that he will have with the African-American community.
"I will look for support wherever there is goodwill and shared conviction. I will work with you to help our children attend better schools and help our economy create good jobs with better wages," he said. "I will seek your counsel. And if I am elected president and you invite me to next year's convention, I would count it as a privilege, and my answer will be yes."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.