Mitt Romney was booed. It was a good day for Mitt Romney.
When the Republican nominee told the NAACP that he was committed to eliminating Obamacare, audience members shouted out. The negative reception Wednesday in Houston might have been momentarily jarring to the candidate, but the moment had a political upside. It offered a chance for a candidate criticized for his malleability to look principled in the face of opposition. That might not have mattered to the audience in the auditorium, but as Romney advisers explain, this speech was not just aimed at the people sitting in their seats or African-American voters in general.
Like Romney's contentious visit to the largely African-American school in West Philadelphia weeks ago, this speech was aimed at rounding out Romney's image. “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,” he said.
Hearing this, swing voters might think Gov. Romney has a bigger heart than those mean Democratic ads claiming he sent jobs overseas. At the very least the speech, and the negative reaction it provoked, replaced the outsourcing of American jobs as the political topic of the day. That may be the biggest political benefit of all of Mitt Romney's NAACP speech: He changed the conversation.
In an election that is so close, both campaigns seem less concerned about the substance of their argument than that the argument take place on favorable turf. On issues from health care to charges and counter-charges about outsourcing, both Romney and Obama are willing to endure boos, howls from fact-checkers, and even some cries of hypocrisy if it will keep the argument on the topics that do them the most political good.
Romney was also applauded by the NAACP audience, as his supporters were quick to point out. True, but it's in their candidate's interest to get booed and to have that booing reported. Quiet golf clapping and even sustained applause would rob Romney of explaining how steadfast he is going to be in the interviews that followed. It would weaken the Daniel in the Lion's Den story. Big deal, Daniel, the lions just purred at you.
This is why, when candidate Obama in 2008 told of being grumbled at by auto executives for his position on auto emissions, he left out the part about how they gave him a standing ovation at the end of the speech.
The boos are particularly helpful in building ties with conservatives who prize constancy in the face of opposition among all political attributes and who have specific concerns about Romney's commitment to repealing the president's health care plan.
It should be noted that the appearance of bravery is distinct from actual bravery. This was not a Sister Soulja moment, named for Bill Clinton's comments at a conference sponsored by the Rainbow Coalition criticizing a popular rap artist for contributing to the coarsening of the culture. Jeb Bush talking about his party's strict views on immigration is the closest thing to a popular GOP official challenging his base.
In this case, Romney was telling leaders of a community disproportionately lacking quality health care that legislation expanding the system is a bad thing. Romney asked the audience to see his heart, but after so quickly dismissing this policy that has deep consequences for the African-American community, he offered no alternative health care vision or hint that he understood the depth of the need that Obamacare — as flawed as it may be — was trying to meet. (When Romney later suggested those who had booed simply wanted more “free stuff,” that probably made it harder to see his heart.)
President Obama is also willing to take his own hits to keep the argument on his turf. His campaign is running a variety of ads charging Romney with outsourcing jobs while the head of Bain Capital. A variety of fact-checking organizations have called the president on it, giving him the most negative ratings possible, challenging his assertions and saying his campaign can't back up its claims. Yet, the ads are still running. The Obama campaign is convinced the TV attacks are working because any conversation about outsourcing is one Democrats think they are going to win. The idea is unpopular and voters are likely to believe that the candidate who sells himself as a business guy and whose firm sometimes shuttered factories was the one involved in outsourcing.
President Obama is a long way from the 2008 candidate who used to inveigh against political game playing. Though, even at the time, Obama was willing to say one thing and do another, and his campaign ran more negative ads than any in history.
This is further confirmation of an essential truth both campaigns have embraced about fact checking: The upside from a strong distortion is better than the downside from the hall monitors. If you're not getting four Pinocchios or a pants-on-fire, you're not doing it right. Let them boo — as long as the message gets through.
Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent.