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October 1, 2007
GOP Candidates Debate 'Race'
Last week, six GOP presidential candidates appeared at Morgan State University in Baltimore to debate issues relating to race. Appearing were Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, and Alan Keyes (who claimed he has been excluded from previous GOP debates). The debate was broadcast on PBS The moderator was talk show host Tavis Smiley, and the questioners were Juan Williams (NPR and Fox News Sunday), Cynthia Tucker (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), and Ray Suarez (The PBS News Hour).
The debate was well-organized and conducted in a professional and thoughtful manner by Mr. Smiley and the panel. Only Fox News has put on better debates. The panelists asked the candidates several tough, if tendentious, questions about racial disparities in crime, income, education, and related matters. The candidates' answers were very revealing of their basic political and philosophical positions.
Interestingly, the candidates to the left of the stage -- Huckabee, Paul, and Brownback -- consistently answered the questions in a stereotypically liberal manner. These three candidates accepted the premise that "white racism" plays the biggest part in explaining the problems facing minority citizens in this country. In particular, they all agreed that the criminal justice system is biased against blacks, and that minority individuals cannot get ahead in life because they "feel the boot" of oppression on their necks. These latter words were Huckabee's. His performance, in particular, was an utter disgrace. Any respect I once had for Huckabee is now gone, after seeing him bend over backwards to win the Al Sharpton vote. Even his astute remark about President Eisenhower's unappreciated record on civil rights could not make up for his repeated bad mouthing of America's commitment to equal rights.
In sharp contrast, the candidates to the right of the stage -- Tancredo, Hunter, and Keyes -- completely rejected the liberal message offered by the other candidates. Hunter gave some excellent answers highlighting the Republican Party's strong record on civil rights, and Keyes offered stirring oratory about basic values and national unity. All of it was really good stuff that needed to be heard.
But Tancredo won me over early in the debate when he called out the three liberal candidates for their egregious "race-baiting" and articulated his position that the problems facing the black community primarily stem from the disintegration of the black family caused by the welfare state, and from the massive importation of low-paid immigrant labor. Throughout the debate, Tancredo never accepted the racialist premises of the panelists' questions. He consistently focused on the real problems, and offered some meaningful proposals for reform (unlike Brownback, who repeatedly trumpeted his proposal for an African-American history museum "on the mall in Washington, D.C.").
Overall, I think Tancredo "won" the debate. Unfortunately, Tancredo lacks the speaking skills, the charisma, and the leadership qualities to win the presidency. Yes, he is smart, sincere, and right on the issues. But I am afraid that Hillary or Obama would destroy him in a one-on-one debate before a national television audience. Like it or not, image matters in a media-driven democracy like ours. And Tancredo does not have the image to become president (at least in a contest against Hillary or Obama).
As for the only four GOP candidates with a realistic chance of winning the presidency -- Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain -- none of them even bothered to show up to the debate. While their campaigns offered various excuses, they obviously lack the backbone to answer hot button questions from minority panelists in an honest and principled manner. I strongly suspect that if one of the four front-runners had showed up, he would have sounded more like Huckabee and Brownback than Tancredo and Hunter. But they all feared that pandering for liberal black votes would cost them conservative white votes, so they avoided the forum altogether. Or they feared making a campaign-ending gaffe on a sensitive racial issue. Either way, it was a pathetic display of political cowardice.
Thompson may have been the exception. But we'll never know. Clearly, Thompson could have used this debate to put his stamp on the Republican nomination contest. Had he been as outspoken as Tancredo in rejecting the failed liberal approach to race, he would have garnered considerable press attention, as well as the gratitude of millions of conservative voters. That he didn't even attend the debate does not speak well of Thompson's political instincts or his ambition to be president.
Mr. Smiley commented that the four candidates who refused to participate missed an important opportunity to connect with black voters and demonstrate that the Republican message transcends race and class. I completely agree. Even though very few blacks will vote for the Republican candidate in 2008 (I predict historically low numbers), it is crucial to make the effort. As former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele has argued, Republicans can become more successful among minority voters if they take the time to explain how conservative ideas and values will improve life in the minority community.
Yet as Steve Sailer and others have sharply noted, the electoral consequences for Republicans of winning just a few more percentage points of the white vote vastly outweigh the impact of even doubling Republican support among black voters. Consequently, the real importance in Republican candidates reaching out to black voters is in the message it sends to white voters.
In his own review of the debate, Rick Moran argued that "anything that reinforces the party's image as being insensitive to minorities will almost certainly cost it votes among moderates." In other words, Rick believes that by not showing up to the debate, the four main candidates hurt themselves among moderate, i.e., liberal-leaning, white voters, who require proof of the party's color blindness before they will pull the Republican lever. Perhaps.
My own view, however, is that by not standing up for Republican principles before a minority audience, the four leading candidates hurt themselves much more among traditional Republican voters, i.e., conservatives, libertarians (who oppose the welfare state), Southerners, and white ethnics, who now are on notice that their party's "leaders" lack the confidence to take our message to the minority community.
This is hardly the way to inspire Republican voters to go to the polls and support the ticket in 2008.