Romney has spent the past several years fashioning himself into a human meme of Republican orthodoxies. He has not shaped the party in any noticeable, let alone significant, way. The party has shaped him. To win its nomination, he has embodied the values of its most powerful and ascendant wings.
This is obviously true. Romney’s NAACP speech was so underwhelming as an exercise in “outreach” because there is nothing that he could realistically say or propose that would change the way that this audience views his party*. If he had taken a risk and addressed more controversial issues, such as, say, prison reform or the drug war, he would have at least deserved credit for trying, but he didn’t do that. On top of this, Romney’s sales pitch needs work. He said:
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.
No, they wouldn’t, and one of the reasons they wouldn’t is that his audience doesn’t accept that Romney knows what is “the real, enduring best interest of African American families.” They could be wrong, but no one wins over any constituency or interest group by telling them that his understanding of their interests is better than theirs. That is essentially what Romney said early in his speech.
This isn’t a problem of communication. Romney’s error here is the same one that many Americans make when they argue that better public diplomacy (by which they usually mean better P.R.) will change the way that other nations view U.S. policies. We have heard something like this before: “If only it were possible for Washington to communicate fully what it believes is the real, enduring best interest for [name of foreign nation here], that nation would support U.S. policy towards them and their region.” This is the equivalent of saying, “Of course, I am obviously right, and it is only because of your lack of understanding and my failure to explain my position clearly enough that you don’t agree with me.” This is the opposite of persuasion.
Some want to give Romney credit for not pandering in this instance, but he was simply continuing the long-running pander to his own partisans. This is hardly shocking, and it’s what most of us expect from our national politicians, but let’s not pretend that Romney exhibited any unusual political courage by reciting perfectly conventional Republican views in front of an unsympathetic audience.
* I should add that deep-seated skepticism about a party’s goals and intentions isn’t going to be reduced by a politician with a reputation for being unprincipled and dishonest.