(CONNECTICUT) – When Mitt Romney was 16 years old in 1963, he watched as his father, George Romney, marched in an anti-segregation rally in the suburbs of Detroit. His dad had just been elected governor of Michigan by a slim margin and knew that by standing arm-in-arm with civil-rights leaders, he’d alienate some white supporters who helped him win. But he did it anyway. He was known for standing up for what was right.
As head of the American Motors Company, he was the first to champion small fuel-efficient cars. He refused to support fellow Republican Barry Goldwater in his 1964 presidential bid because of his pandering to Southern Dixiecrats and Northern sympathizers. And years later, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Nixon, Romney fought GOP leadership to integrate white suburbs.
Not only did his son, Mitt, consider him as a hero. So did the rest of the country. That’s why Kennedy feared a Romney campaign, and that’s why a pollster predicted that George Romney had a better chance of taking the White House in 1968 than any Republican since Dwight Eisenhower.
That all ended in humiliation. As the frontrunner in the 1968 Republican primary, Romney had gone to Vietnam to see how the war was going. He saw it was plainly not going well. He later told a Detroit TV station the Pentagon had tried “brainwashing” him into believing the war effort was going great. He even said that containing communism was a bad idea and that it was wrong for the U.S. to be in Vietnam.
That’s all it took for a lion of equality and freedom to spiral downward into the dustbin of history, and young Mitt watched it all. Liberals, conservatives, the press — everyone seemed to gladly savaged his dad. You can imagine Mitt’s thinking: Doing the right thing is great and all but doing the right thing doesn’t mean squat if you lose. I’m never going to let that happen to me. I’m a winner.
Forty-four years later, Mitt Romney may have said something important in a speech at the annual conference of the NAACP on Wednesday, but it’s doubtful anyone remembers. What we do remember is the Republican presidential candidate’s renewing of his vow to repeal “nonessential” federal programs like “Obamacare,” as if he were speaking to friendly audience at a luncheon of Houston’s Rotary Club.
This, of course, was the highest profile civil-rights group in the U.S. to which Romney was promising to wipe out the first African-American president’s landmark health care reform legislation, a set of laws designed to extend access to health care to 30 million Americans. The result was 17 long seconds of uproarious booing. Romney, in criticizing Obama elsewhere, was interrupted two more times.
At the very least, he could have used the formal name for “Obamacare,” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That wouldn’t have evoked the kind of reaction he got when he dropped the passion-packed “Obamacare.” That the word has been used to code expressions of white supremacy is hardly lost on a black audience. Romney, as a candidate, really ought to know better.
And maybe he does. Since Wednesday, many observers, not just liberals and Democrats, have wondered what Romney could have been up to. He surely couldn’t have hoped to woe black voters. One poll shows Romney has support from 3 percent of African Americans. Another shows just 1 percent.
One theory is that Romney spoke at the convention not to win black votes but to shore up support among white conservatives who may have originally supported Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. As Julian Bond, the former long-time chairman of the NAACP, told the Los Angeles Times after the speech:
“He wasn’t speaking to us. He was speaking to that slice of white America that hasn’t made up its mind about him, and he’s saying, ‘Look at me, I’m O.K. I can get along with the Negroes. I can say things to them that they don’t like, so I’m not afraid to stand up to them. … I think that’s what this is all about, and that’s the reason he came.”
This might have appeared cynical but for follow-up remarks Romney made later in Montana:
“When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare, they weren’t happy … But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, 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. It has to be paid for by people in the private sector 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. And if they don’t want to repeal Obamacare they are going to have to give me some other stuff.”
Let’s unpack this. The reasoning is that Obamacare is free to those who don’t want to pay for it, and if you want free stuff, you’re going to have to give up something, because that’s how budgets work.
First, let’s dismiss the flawed accounting logic — the, “if they want Obamacare, they’ve got to give me something in return.” A republican government elected democratically should first serve its citizenry, not creditors. It is not a business by any stretch. While fiscal responsibility matters (and is too often ignored), health care is more important. It shouldn’t be treated like any other ledger item.
Second, Obamacare isn’t a government freebie. A majority of working-age Americans are going to do what they do now: Pay private companies for private health insurance. The government never gets involved. For those who can afford coverage but decide against it, the government gets involved by affixing a penalty commensurate with income to encourage the purchase of coverage. It isn’t a tax; it functions more like a speeding citation. For those who want insurance but can’t afford it, the government gets involved again, this time to lend assistance. This new group represents a very small number.
Third, the point of the law’s individual mandate, which requires all Americans to have health insurance by 2014, was to address the problem of “freeloading.” The idea is that every citizen gets sick at some point, no matter how young and healthy, and if they don’t pay for health insurance themselves, someone else picks up the tab, like it or not. Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, knew that by mandating insurance for everyone, he’d minimize “freeloading” while bringing down the soaring cost of health care.
Like others, I heard dog-whistling when I read about Romney’s remarks in Montana. It seemed clear he was sending a message to the GOP’s racist fringe that he has the guts to defy not just black folks but “uppity” black folks. This worked wonders for Gingrich in South Carolina. Even so, Romney is no Gingrich, and race-baiting doesn’t come naturally to him, as it does for the former House Speaker.
But Romney is indeed smart, driven, wily and willing to say what it takes to win. In 2008, he was a pragmatic candidate, the former governor of the first state to make the dream of universal health care a reality. Obama’s victory, however, radicalized his party, making it forever impossible for Romney to use his greatest achievement in public office to entice moderate and independent voters and forever possible to look weak-kneed in front of hardline conservatives. So he did what he had to do to win.
He abandoned what was right.
The real scandal isn’t Romney’s dogwhistling. That’s just part of the game. But in telling the NAACP, America’s preeminent civil rights organization, that he was going to kill off “nonessential” programs like “Obamacare,” he was saying in effect that winning is more important than preserving equality and justice for all. Recall that doing the right thing is great but doing the right thing doesn’t mean squat if you lose. Romney remembers what happened to his father, and he doesn’t want to repeat that history.
He won’t. We still remember George Romney’s courage.
Even if his son wins in November, we won’t remember his.