Political Maneuvering and Conflicting Visions of America

Mitt Romney’s Search for Self-Definition on the National Stage

By Andrew Firestone

On Wednesday, July 11, Governor Mitt Romney travelled to Houston, Texas to speak in front of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One minute into his speech Governor Romney assured the audience that presidential candidates “don’t count anybody out, and we sure don’t make a habit of presuming anyone’s support.” He went on to say that he hopes to “represent all Americans…from the poorest to the richest and everyone in between.” After acknowledging “the unemployment rate, the duration of employment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community,” he maintained that “If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him.”

That night Governor Romney flew to Montana for a small fundraiser. After mentioning that he had spoken at the NAACP earlier that day he explained that “I don’t give different speeches to different audiences…I want people to know what I stand for, and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that’s just fine.”

Two months prior on May 17 he spoke at a private fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida. What he did not know at the time is that a guest at the event filmed 47 minutes of footage that was later picked up and publicized by the liberal publication Mother Jones. Referring to a study conducted by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, Governor Romney discussed the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income tax.

Putting aside for a moment the payroll, state, and local taxes paid by almost all Americans, let Mr. Romney’s words speak for themselves. Mr. Romney argued that these Americans were “dependent upon government…and believe that they are victims.” He went on to say that these Americans “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” To make sure that his audience fully understood, he concluded, “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

On the contrary, in front of the NAACP, Governor Romney sought to assure his audience that his “policies and leadership would help families of color.” On this subject, though, he could not avoid that “while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2% in June, the unemployment rate for African-Americans actually went up, from 13.6% to 14.2%.”

At the NAACP, Romney spoke in front of a large crowd and a half dozen cameras; later that day in Montana he spoke at a much smaller event, with a small contingent of reporters present. At the now infamous fundraiser two months earlier, he spoke under the assumption that his words to a group of wealthy contributors would go unrecorded. It is no coincidence that it was there, outside the public eye, where Romney felt comfortable giving his “47%” comments. His idea that these Americans view government through a victimized lens racially echoes Reagan’s comments from the 1976 presidential campaign trail regarding welfare fraud. Just as Romney argued that 150 million Americans are lazy citizens that blindly support the Democratic Party, Reagan inappropriately used the story of one woman from the South Side of Chicago to incite white America to condemn African Americans on welfare. In both cases, the presidential candidates employed racially coded language to gently relay more controversial opinions regarding the intersection of race and class from an elite white perspective.

Mitt Romney promised supporters in Montana in July that he intended to give the same speech to different audiences, one that highlights the enduring promise of the middle class for all Americans. But in May he offered a different vision— a pessimistic, disdainful, and exclusive America.

Does Governor Romney genuinely believe that half the country does not take personal responsibility for their lives? I’m not sure. His campaign has walked a tight rope, with ultra conservative demands on one side and moderate independents on the other. Appeasing the far right, and particularly wealthy donors, has resulted in a struggle for Mr. Romney to establish himself as one candidate in front of a wide range of supporters that perceive America in very different terms.

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