“Free stuff”? The message from Romney’s NAACP speech

NICHOLAS KAMM AFP/GETTY IMAGES US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People … Continued



US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) annual convention in Houston on July 11, 2012.

Mitt Romney, GOP candidate for president, has been looking for a way to run from the Affordable Care Act since the linchpin, the individual mandate, is essentially the same as the legislation Romney approved when he was governor of Massachusetts. Justice Ginsburg neatly pointed this out in her Supreme Court opinion on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

The fact that “Romneycare” is, in all meaningful respects, “Obamacare” has been somewhat awkward for the Romney camp.

Romney really needs a conversation changer on “Obamacare.”

Perhaps what we saw this week, therefore, is the roll out of the new messaging on “Obamacare.” This began when Romney accepted an invitation to address the NAACP, the historic African American civil rights group. Romney was generally civilly received, except he was booed when he derided “Obamacare” as “expensive and unnecessary.”

Romney Welcomes the Boos” opined John Dickerson at Slate, because “It offered a chance for a candidate criticized for his malleability to look principled in the face of opposition.”

Perhaps. But I think there’s more to it than just looking “principled.”

I too think Romney welcomed the “boos,” but I have begun to wonder if Romney didn’t solicit them in order to tee up his new message on health care. The “boos” from the African American crowd at the NAACP made headlines and Romney addressed that response in a speech to a group of donors in Hamilton, Montana.

“If you’re looking for free stuff you don’t have to pay for? Vote for the other guy, that’s what he’s all about, okay? That’s not, that’s not what I’m about.”

“Free stuff.” Suddenly, that seemed to become the new message on “Obamacare” from Romney: legislation to provide a means to obtain health care by those who are currently uninsured is the equivalent of giving people “free stuff,” that is, a “handout.” This is insulting to millions of Americans whose health is at risk because they cannot afford the high costs of private health insurance.

But it is especially insulting to African Americans given the cynical way the Romney camp apparently got this new messaging out. Health care as “free stuff” wanted by African Americans is roughly equivalent, in its racial undertones, to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” messaging from his 1976 presidential campaign.

That 1976 presidential campaign was a terrible time in American politics as it set the template for using racially coded language to justify cutting the social safety net. This has had enormously negative consequences over more than three decades as it has served to cut the nerve of ethical effort to eliminate both poverty and racism. It gives people an excuse not to care about the poor because the poor ‘don’t deserve it,’ and it stereotypes the poor as all African American when that is completely inaccurate. People are tempted to believe that universal health care isn’t necessary because it is just a scam for people who are looking to get “free stuff.”

Affordable health care isn’t “free stuff” or a handout to the undeserving, it is a “moral responsibility” we have a society to one another, as Rev. Jennifer Butler said. Faith leaders from many religious perspectives worked hard for passage of the Affordable Care Act, and its constitutionality was called “a blessing” and “in line with our biblical and theological witness.”

Health care is a “human right” according to these faith leaders, not a handout. It is particularly morally misguided of Mr. Romney, therefore, to characterize resistance on the part of an American audience to his calling the ACA legislation “unnecessary” as a desire for “free stuff.”

Why would Mr. Romney do that?

I, among others, am becoming very suspicious that Mitt Romney’s speech to the NAACP was not primarily addressed to that audience but to another audience entirely, namely his “base” of white voters. If this analysis is correct, it is an extraordinarily disrespectful treatment of the NAACP and its membership.

Americans can disagree about many things, and it is clear there is broad disagreement about health care legislation. But the one thing we owe each other as fellow citizens is mutual respect.

Prove me wrong, Mr. Romney. Quit saying the Affordable Care Act is just a way for people to get “free stuff.” It’s not.

Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • naughtymonkey

    I have some “free stuff” for Mitt Romney–common sense, street smarts, compassion for his fellow men and women, and learning to walk a mile in another’s shoes. Oh yes, also–statesmanship.


    Wow…”I, among others, am becoming very suspicious that Mitt Romney’s speech to the NAACP was not primarily addressed to that audience but to another audience entirely, namely his “base” of white voters.”

    You finally figgered that out, eh super genius? That Romney just wanted to feed some red meat to the racists he so desperately needs?
    No flies on you, NYT. Maybe soon you’ll also come to the “no duh” conclusion that the guy who says Obamacare is a tax, while it’s Siamese twin Romneycare is not, just might say ANYTHING to get the idiots of America to vote for him.


    Question One: Are you voting for Mitt Romney?
    Key: If you answered “Yes” to any of the question above, check your birth certificate. If it doesn’t say Koch or Trump, congratulations! You can now be positive that you are undeniably an idiot.

  • artychipmunk

    How is it “free stuff” if it’s your tax dollars?! The federal government doesn’t have its “own” money, it belongs to us all.

  • winfreyr

    so those bank bailouts…they earned those right?

  • dcrswm

    Is Romney unaware of what the CP in NAACP stands for? His comments certainly make it seem that way.

  • Publius111

    I’m sorry Ms. Thistlethwait, but you completely lost me. Once second you’re talking about the NAACP booing Romney’s fairly standard stump speech because they disagree with him about the pending health care law–and then you mention that on another occasion Romney repeated another oft repeated theme that he’s not for government handing out free stuff–and then somehow these two facts add up to sinister racial undertones….because the NAACP booed him…because Romney didn’t change his stump speech…and so…

    Nope, I’m still not following you. Can someone help me out here?

  • Catken1

    And isn’t it a shame for the nation that 50% of our people are too poor to pay federal taxes (though they DO contribute through payroll and sales taxes, both highly regressive)?

    Maybe if the whiners at the top stopped hoarding wealth and started, for example, paying living wages to their employees instead of shipping jobs overseas to near-slave labor, they would see a rise in income for the middle and lower class, and more taxes coming from them.

  • backspace1

    an arc angel perhaps -professor . i don’t mind stepping on it.

    i for one don’t believe in god angels or in anything that proclaims the righteous word of gospel teachings. the message clear in state of a hallucinating mind. received.

    and if god so gave jacob wisdom was it not, because he had decided it was prudent to relief himself of the responsibility-?
    left 50 down – 5 . tactical position(?) doesn’t include the mountains needed to abosorb so many . and we did give it a good go, i stand relieved.

    yes, i often ponder the surrender and the illusion of secular privledges as a small mind would. Monkey of course please call me.

    a small saving grace? a praetorial conversation ” i wanna fly the stars”
    ( followed by laughter
    “maybe another lifetime”.

  • persiflage

    No one gets more free stuff that super-rich tax freeloaders like Mitt Rmoney.
    And the Affordable Care legislation was modeled directly after his state healthcare program in Massachusetts. Now he vows to overturn it while he panders to the rightwing extremists that control the GOP these days.

    He stashes millions in tax-free off-shore accounts during his Bain Capital days, eliminates hundreds of jobs, and pays a puny 15% capital gains tax on unearned income from his main stash. He has had plenty of experience making money, just not for ordinary people.

    Here’s the kicker – he wants to lower taxes on the rich when he becomes president. He’s qualified for Wall Street alright – but he doesn’t live on Main Street and he certainly doesn’t belong at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

    Apparently he missed that proverb about camels and needles………..

  • quiensabe

    Proud of you, Susan. You didn’t misinterpret the Bible once this time!

  • persiflage

    quiensabe, you comment frequently on how the bible should be understood and interpreted. What exactly are your qualifications for possessing this insider knowledge?

    Do you have academic degrees of any kind that would give one true insider knowledge beyond the ‘belief’ level? Without credentials in the history of religion and a comparative study of religions, all one really has is an opinion based on personal belief – which is driven by early learning and other personal factors.

    Frankly, I don’t really consider theology degrees to provide the kind of broad exposure to religion as an social insitution that might be preferred in a true subject matter expert, but it does provide considerable historical background in one religioius faith, if nothing else.

    Theologians are, after all, committed to their religion whether they are liberal or conservative in their interpretations.

    Do you find fault with Susan’s theology, or her politics? Surely the two need to be viewed separately for the sake of objectivity.


  • Jon Waite

    “Free Stuff” for the NAACP? I wonder if Romney’s plan includes coverage for foot-in-mouth disease …

  • quiensabe

    I like your points, persiflage, because they show you are approaching your position from the stand point that education will provide you with answers. As, however, in “The Truth Shall Set You Free,” truth cannot be found there. The more you study, the more you know. The Truth I speak of comes from God, not man. God tells us that we don’t need what man teaches us but we need the Holy Spirit gives us. Man cannot discern the mind of God, but the Holly Spirit can. All this is not available to man unless, like Jesus said, he is born again.

    But you seem to be truly seeking and God tells us that if we seek Him we will find Him. Ask Him, not me.

  • Catken1

    translated: You don’t need all that fancy education and thinking, just have blind faith in what I tell you God wants!

  • persiflage

    ‘And maybe if the Leftists in power would stop making the business environment in the US toxic, we would have more of them coming here, and hence, more employment, and more wealth for everyone.’

    Maybe if Rmoney and his rightwing buddies stopped off-shoring American jobs in order to maximize profits for themselves and their rich stockholders more people would be employed in the USA. The greed on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms is beyond the ken of ordinary folks.

    What Romney and his cronies represent is New Age feudalism, not the good old-fashioned capitalism that once allowed the wealth to be spread around to the greatest number of citizens.

    The robber barons of old would be proud of the direction taken by the GOP in recent years. No-tax pledges compliments of libertarian extremist Grover Norquist is the central principle of today’s republican party. What a bunch of mindless robots.

    BTW, the chances of taxes going up for everyone is quite high – in 2013.

  • Whamadoodle

    Um… quiensabe, “God tells us that we don’t need what man teaches us”?? So… that includes what you’re trying to teach us right now, correct?

    And… if someone tells you “turn back! Turn back! The bridge is out!”, you’ll ignore that too, because we don’t need what THAT man is trying to teach us either?

    That’s an incredibly dumb way to live one’s life. Remember the parable about the guy who keeps praying “please, God, deliver me from this desert island,” but waves away the guy that keeps coming to save him in the boat, saying “no thanks, I don’t need a boat–God will be delivering me from the island soon.”

    Get over yourself a bit, buddy–you’re not God. So don’t tell us “this is what God tells us.”

  • Whamadoodle

    It’s clear enough: she’s saying that he called “Obamacare” a “non-essential government service” that he would cut, knowing that saying that would get a chilly reception.

    Then he could go elsewhere and frame it as African-Americans wanting free stuff… even though, you’re quite right, ANY group of Americans that traditionally votes Democratic would boo that.

    That was all perfectly clear to me, but maybe the saying “it is very hard to make a man understand something when his job depends on his not understanding it” could also read: “it is very hard to make a man understand something when his political bias depends on his not understanding it.”

    Health care is not a “non-essential government program.” It’s a LIFE-SAVING government program. Anyone who’s in favor of spending $680 billion a year on the military, in order to save American lives, should be perfectly happy to spend the same amount in order to save MORE American lives. Follow that?

  • Whamadoodle

    ScottinVA, you would scream for mommy’s mercy if you had to spend one DAY in the shoes of the poor here in America.

  • quiensabe

    The scripture is 1 John 2:27 – But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.

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