In 2003, FBI Director Robert Mueller went into hostile territory—an American Civil Liberties Union conference—and won a standing ovation after delivering a speech that showed respect for what the ACLU does while defending the civil liberties and counter-terrorism record of the Bush administration. During the 1992 campaign, then-candidate Bill Clinton addressed African-American voters and criticized hip-hop singer Sister Souljah for lyrics and comments that were racially provocative. And in the 2008 presidential campaign, GOP primary contender Mike Huckabee was alone among Republican candidates in speaking to a convention of the National Education Association. He, too, won standing ovations for some of his comments, despite the fact that the teachers union is seen as more Democratic-leaning.
Mitt Romney did not do any of those things at a convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Wednesday. In his speech, Romney provoked boos—one of them a full 15 seconds long, by one newspaper's count—for promising to repeal "Obamacare."
We could spend days analyzing what was behind this moment. Did Romney figure he wasn't going to win over many African-American voters anyway, so why not make a statement to reassure conservatives he really, truly was committed to undoing the healthcare law (even though it's remarkably similar to what he brokered and signed when he was govern of Massachusetts)? Did he think he would show gumption and spine by making what he had to know was a hostile comment to a skeptical audience? Surely he had to have known that the use of the political term "Obamacare" was, on its own, going to get a negative reaction.
But Romney revealed a bigger weakness at that convention, and it wasn't an honest disagreement about policy. It's that Romney still sounds as though he's not relating to all of his audiences. At the National Association of Latino Elected Officials conference recently, an attendee complained to me that Romney sounded as though he was delivering a report to the board of directors of a corporation. There was no human connection, no sense that Romney had thought about how that population lives or interacts. It's fine that Romney is rich and doesn't live like a lot of American voters do—most of our presidents have been wealthy. But in both his addresses to NALEO and to the NAACP, Romney had a crucially missed connection. He was telling them why he thought he'd be a better president for their communities, but it was without a clear understanding of what they wanted, and what their value systems are. Romney didn't need to censor his views before those audiences—that, in fact, would have been worse, and cemented an impression of him as a flip-flopper. But he had opportunities at both of those sessions to showcase a side of him that shares a connection with at least a segment of the Latino and African-American vote. He missed the chance.