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Romney v. Biden: Scenes from a Smackdown

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By now, you know the basics. Mitt Romney spoke to the NAACP convention in Houston on Wednesday, and it didn’t go great. If you need proof that the standing ovation doesn’t mean what it used to, observe that Romney had one coming and going, while being booed thrice in between. Sure, it was a slow rise—starting in the front, creeping back, people looking at each other like, “We’re doing this?”—but almost everybody joined in eventually.

In contrast, Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke in the same spot and time on Thursday, got nine mid-speech standing ovations, and I only counted the ones that extended to the sides. He also got booed once—when he said he was wrapping up.

Everybody knew Romney was in for a rough ride, including Romney. He really smiled through that first boo, which was long, 17 seconds, and crowd-wide and disapproving rather than angry. Nancy Pelosi speculated that Romney wanted the boos. Considering that they were prompted by the promise to repeal “Obamacare,” the right’s derisive name for the Affordable Care Act, maybe there’s some truth to that. Certainly the optics of rejection by a black group couldn’t have hurt Romney with a certain crowd, perhaps the crowd for whom he made this recent albino ad—two-and-a-half minutes with no people of color.

But I’ll give Romney the benefit of the doubt. He seemed to be making an effort. He opened with a joke, saying he appreciated the chance to speak before Biden. “I just hope the Obama campaign won’t think you’re playing favorites.” Polite chuckles. After that, he used the president’s name only twice, excluding “Obamacare,” and both mentions were glancing, gentle.

“When President Obama called to congratulate me on becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, he said that he ‘looked forward to an important and healthy debate about America’s future,’” Romney said. “To date, I’m afraid that his campaign has taken a different course than that.” He said this with paternal regret, a voice I can imagine him using with an employee, saying, “I’m sorry, we’re going to have to let you go.”

He treaded softly, too, up to the issues facing African Americans today, blaming no one. “Many barriers remain,” he mused. “Old inequities persist. In some ways, the challenges are even more complicated than before.”

Then he rolled out the only statistics he would use for the entire speech—to illustrate how crappily African Americans have it. “The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community,” he reminded them. “In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 to 14.4 percent.”

This was, I’m sure, supposed to focus the campaign on the economy, but in this venue it almost sounded scolding. He urged dissatisfaction: “Americans of every background are asking when this economy will finally recover—and you, in particular, are entitled to an answer.” (As PBS noted, Romney stopped short of saying “you people,” a mistake Ross Perot made in 1992.)

But it wasn’t answer time yet. It was more bad news time. “Today, black children are 17 percent of students nationwide—but they are 42 percent of the students in our worst-performing schools.” One can imagine these same stats being used to make a different case than the one Romney was presumably, although not explicitly, making—that black students are underserved.

He added, “A study from the Brookings Institution has shown that for those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and wait until 21 before they marry and then have their first child, the probability of being poor is two percent. And if those factors are absent, the probability of being poor is 76 percent.”

Romney offered this as proof of why it’s important to focus on strengthening families. But what I heard was, ‘If you’d done everything right, you wouldn’t be poor.’

“Any policy that lifts up and honors the family is going to be good for the country, and that must be our goal,” he said. He wasn’t specific on how he’d do that, only that he will stop the gays. “As President, I will promote strong families—and I will defend traditional marriage.”

Which should be a relief to all the black children in underperforming schools. Somehow.

How will Romney fix the African American situation in America? Simple: approve the Keystone pipeline.

No, seriously.

Romney’s five-step plan to return jobs to the U.S. is:

1. Approve the Keystone pipeline

2. Open up new markets for American products

3. Reduce government spending

4. Develop skilled workers

5. Restore economic freedom. “Entrepreneurs are being crushed by high taxation, burdensome regulation, hostile regulators, excessive healthcare costs, and destructive labor policies,” Romney said.

“If I am president, job one for me will be creating better jobs,” he said. (Romney said “job” or “jobs” 16 times.) “I have no hidden agenda. If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you are looking at him.”

The chuckles, this time, were less polite.

Romney had lost the crowd by now. Some, he never had to start with; a few minutes after he started speaking, a white-haired woman in an orange dress walked down the aisle, making contact with many as she passed. “I just can’t do this,” she said. “Can’t do it.”

Romney referred only once to his record in Massachusetts, when his reforms narrowed the achievement gap between students of different races. He also leaned hard on charter schools and called teachers’ unions “special interests.”

“I can’t promise you that you and I will agree on every issue,” Romney said as he closed. “But I do promise that your hospitality to me today will be returned.” Considering the collective mood at that point, this sounded a bit ominous.

Then, in place of his own civil rights cred, Romney listed his father’s, and then pivoted to God, “whose justice is certain and whose mercy endures forever,” a debatably contradictory pair of divine attributes. Finally, oh hell yes, Romney busted out Dr. King in a way that suggested MLK was disappointed in Obama’s record. Quoting: “Unless [God’s] spirit pervades our lives, we find only what G. K. Chesterton called ‘cures that don’t cure, blessings that don’t bless, and solutions that don’t solve.’”

Presumably, Romney then took a long, scalding shower.

The man who, in his opening statements, had said he wanted to “represent all Americans, of every race, creed, or sexual orientation,” had a fundraiser in Montana that very night. There, Romney was done being respectful. He said the NAACP booed him for not offering “more free stuff.”

“If they want more stuff from the government,” Romney said, “tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff. But don’t forget nothing is really free.”

Rush Limbaugh posited that Romney’s speech went “over these people’s heads.”

Those comments play well to some nasty racial stereotypes, but if you compare Romney’s speech with Biden’s, it just ain’t true.

Romney talked like he feared his speech would go over people’s heads, in vagaries and trite expressions. “Trade must be free and fair,” Romney said, “so I’ll clamp down on cheaters like China and make sure they finally play by the rules.”

I have no idea what that means.

Biden, in contrast, went to the record. He named legislation like he expected his audience to have been paying attention to Congressional goings on for the last four years and, considering that the NAACP is a venerable, aggressively middle-class, highly politically active organization, was probably an appropriate bet.

“Extending the payroll tax—only seven Republicans initially voted for it,” Biden said. “Lilly Ledbetter equal pay—three Republicans voted for it in the House. When we attempted to raise the debt limit to maintain the full faith and credit of the United States, not a single Republican met the responsibility of meeting that requirement, resulting in a negotiation that brought us to the brink of disaster, ultimately causing America’s credit rating to be lowered for the first time.”

Biden rolled in with a big smile, happy, at home. He had the benefit of a darkened house (Romney got house lights half-on) and a full-on gospel choir warm-up that can only be described as bitchin’. Romney got a long warble of organ music and piano, old, thoughtful hymns that might make a person reflect on who his friends are.

Pre-Biden, after the choir wrapped up, a local pastor gave the invocation.

“Father,” he said, organ playing gently beneath him, the audience having been asked to stand, “it’s been a good convention. We’ve been blessed to hear from Chairman Brock, we’ve been blessed to hear from President Jealous, we’ve been blessed to hear from Attorney General Holder… And we’ve heard also from Mitt Romney.”

This did not go over their heads.

Then Biden preached. He praised Obama for the auto industry bailout, for Osama bin Laden’s death, for the Affordable Care Act, and he talked numbers: “[Obama] cut $100 billion from the federal debt over the next 10 years, provided access to affordable health care to 30 million Americans—eight million black Americans who never have had insurance.”

Biden painted a dark vision of a Romney presidency—cuts to college scholarships, early childhood education and job training, tax breaks for oil companies and threats to women’s health and safety. “The Governor isn’t sure what his position on is on the Violence Against Women Act,” Biden said. People laughed. “He’s not sure whether or not the Lilly Ledbetter law that passed was good. But he’s certain on his position on Roe v. Wade—overturn it. Planned Parenthood—get rid of it…[policy] where working women lose access to quality child care, where social policy is basically a throwback to the ‘50s.”

Unhappy murmurs.

Biden called out HIV and infant mortality and pointed to funding for the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health and research universities as crucial to solving these problems. He named the high points of the ACA and brought home the Romney plan’s tax reality. “[Romney] eliminates college tuition credit, the earned income tax credit, and the child tax credit are cut. The result? Two-point-two million African American working families will see a tax increase if he succeeds. That’s a fact.”

Biden talked foreign policy and the START treaty, nuclear disarmament and America’s relationship with Russia. He was not throwing low pitches.

And finally he addressed civil rights themselves. “Did you think we’d be fighting these battles again?” he asked.

“I remember working with Republicans,” he said, “and, by the way, this ain’t your father’s Republican party.” People cheered. “Remember working with Republicans on Motor Voter? On voting by mail? Some of these were Republican ideas.”

“I know you know,” he said. “But I’m not sure everybody—the House of Representatives voted affirmatively to prevent the Justice Department from even investigating whether or not there was voter suppression.”

Biden closed by asking the audience to imagine a Romney Justice Department. The Attorney General, the head of the civil rights division, the Supreme Court.

The mood turned dark. Then he brought it back up. He brought in God.

“The best way to sum up the President’s view, my view, and, I think, your view, is we see America where, in the word of the scripture, ‘What you do unto the least of these my brethren, you do unto me.’”

The crowd went wild. Biden jogged off stage. The audience stayed as the lights came up and they kept standing and clapping until the song was over. The row of women behind me, delegates from Florida, sang the heart of the whole crowd.

“Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours!”

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.