GOP Presidential Candidates Too Busy for Black Folks
As has been widely reported this week, three of the top Republican presidential contenders – John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney – have notified Tavis Smiley that they will not attend his second All-American Presidential Forum – this time for the GOP candidates – on September 27. Most of the reaction has been negative, but the truth is that Republican candidates are in quite a bind with this event.
From the perspective of advocates for persons of color, the event might be read as political strategy in and of itself. It’s a no-win situation for the Republican candidates: If they go, they will inevitably have to either lie (which they are unlikely to do) or profess that any concerns they have about the problems that disproportionately face racial minority communities are better solved by laissez-faire, trickle-down policies. In other words, they will have to admit that they think they know better what is best for black and brown America than African American and Latino leaders. So showing up is either a recipe for election-time disaster by being caught in a lie (or not believed at all) or for publicly taking a revealingly patriarchal approach to these disadvantaged communities.
On the other hand, if they do not go, they risk being accused of not even caring enough about minority communities to show up at the PBS forum. This was the approach all of the Republican candidates took to the proposed Univsion forum; like other Latino-themed events for GOP candidates, the Spanish-language channel invited all of them to Miami, but none accepted. The “top three” in the field have similarly chosen to avoid Smiley’s event, and the fallout began immediately.
Mirror on America correctly asked where all the black Republicans are on this. Remember last year, when so many black Republican candidates ran for statewide office (and lost)? GOP leaders were beating their chest about how the Democratic Party had taken the black vote for granted for too long (which it has), and about how African Americans were starting to realize that the Republican Party was better situated to address their unique concerns (which it is not). We weighed in on this a year ago, arguing that black Republican candidates were in the difficult position of being perceived as “not black enough” to black folks and being “not as black as other blacks” but probably “still too black” to white folks. White Republican candidates are in a similar position at the present: If they show up and answer in ways that will satisfy their conservative base (who they need to win the nomination), they risk looking “racist” in the media and potentially alienating the minority vote for the general election if they do secure the nomination. But if they answer in ways that curry favor with minority audience members and panelists, they run a great risk of looking “soft” on what most conservatives perceive to be hand-out-seeking, personal-responsibility-shirking, white-man-blaming, liberal special interests. We’re glad we’re not advising any of the Republican candidates!
Lots of folks were excited about this event. The African American Environmentalist Association even publicly proposed a list of questions about environmental racism that they wanted to see addressed. They’ll be disappointed if the top three don’t change course.
For his part, Smiley is understandably incensed. He wisely predicted that these candidates’ opponents are going to certainly use this in campaign commercials (if not now, in the general election or in the future). During the week, Smiley went on a media blitz and told various audiences (including viewers of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno) that he’ll keep an empty podium on the stage for each candidate who does not show up. Ouch. Such a gesture is generally reserved for someone who dies – perhaps this symbolizes the death of the candidates to minority voters. Like Mirror on America, Smiley wants to know where all the black Republicans are. African American Political Pundit does, too, noting that there are a number of black columnists who are finding time to go in front of cameras to support the war and the bush Administration, but who are quite silent on this.
Even David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network thinks that not showing up at the forum is a mistake. Look folks, when Pat Robertson’s network comes out against you for snubbing minority groups, you are clearly screwing up. We hope all of the candidates show up and answer directly and honestly the questions from the panel composed completely of journalists of color. It’s more than symbolic (though that would be enough); it’s an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue about issues that are too often absent from other debates.