What better way for the GOP to burnish its image as the country club party than to have all its top presidential candidates blow off a long-scheduled, nationally-televised forum on minority issues, a Sept. 27 debate hosted by a prominent black commentator at an historically black college?
Republicans frequently complain that they are unfairly maligned as being insensitive to people of color; indeed, one of the more noteworthy pillars of the long-range Bush-Rove political game plan was to convince black and Hispanic voters that the GOP was a safe haven. Karl Rove's chief political emissary, the now-departed GOP chairman Ken Mehlman, spent much of his time ricocheting around the nation, trying to court non-Caucasians. Just 16 months ago, President Bush said he considered it "a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African American community," and signaled that GOP should forge those ties again.
But today it's hard to see how that message can have any resonance, now that four '08 Republican contenders - Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain - have opted to stiff Tavis Smiley, the TV/radio host who is sponsoring next Tuesday's minority issues forum at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Newt Gingrich has called this decision "an enormous error," and no wonder: If the GOP has any hopes of being seen as open to diversity, its cause will hardly be helped next Thursday, when the TV cameras zero in on the four empty lecterns.
One of the biggest frauds in this episode is the excuse being floated by the four boycotting candidates, the old chestnut about "scheduling conflicts." This forum has been on the calendar since it was officially announced back on February 8. And "scheduling conflicts" were also invoked this year by major GOP candidates when they were approached by the NAACP, the Urban League, Univision, and the National Association of Latino and Elected Officials.
Some white GOP conservatives have been talking up the Smiley forum for months, calling it a great opportunity for the '08 hopefuls; as Jack Kemp, the ex-congressman and ex-presidential candidate, wrote in July, "if the GOP is ever to regain its lost ground with African-American voters, a good place to start would be to commit itself to debating (minority) issues before a largely black audience...I can't wait for Sept. 27. I can't wait for someone in the GOP to make a positive and progressive case for voting Republican in 2008, instead of appealing only to our fears and trepidations on immigration and Iraq."
So why are the top contenders cutting and running?
Here's the real answer, from a GOP adviser who was quoted yesterday in The Washington Post: "What's the win? Why would (they) go into a crowd where they're probably going to be booed?"
Wow. These guys don't even have Secret Service protection yet, and they're already in the bubble - fearful of not being universally lionized in the public square. (This is a lamentable bipartisan phobia, by the way; the Democratic candidates seem equally fearful of being asked unpleasant questions by Fox News.)
Although all the debates are generally conducted in a civil manner, there's little doubt that the leading GOP contenders, if they weren't so timorous, would indeed be confronted with some inconvenient questions at the Smiley forum. Maybe questions like this:
How would you have handled the Katrina response differently, in a way that would have prevented the needless deaths of black New Orleans citizens? Why do you think that Republican candidates in 2006 received only 11 percent of the black vote nationwide, and how would you boost that support in the future? How come, according to the U.S. Census, the percentage of blacks living below the poverty line jumped from 22.7 to 24.7 during President Bush's first term, while the gap between black and white income widened - and what would you do to reverse all that? And given the large numbers of African-Americans who are fighting and dying in Iraq, what would you specifically to end this war, and how would those efforts differ from those of the current administration?
Kemp and others insist that the GOP candidates have positive ideas that might resonate with minority listeners (in Kemp's words, "empowerment zones, educational choice, capital and ownership opportunities for low-income families"), but, clearly, the prospect of adversarial questions probably explains the four empty lecterns.
None of the top contenders want to risk saying anything that might make them appear to be distancing themselves from Bush - who still has strong majority support from the white GOP conservatives who are likely to dominate the early Republican primary voting in Iowa, New Hampshire, and (especially) South Carolina. Indeed, politics is often a game of inches, and longer-range concerns - such as the fact that the GOP is sending out an exclusionary message at a time when the nation is becoming more racially diverse - are generally postponed to another day.
Giuliani and the others are basically stuck with their decisions. Even if they suddenly reversed themselves and told Smiley that they will attend next Thursday, that by itself would play like an admission of error. Yet by blowing off the forum, they're apparently alienating minority Republicans who have long hoped for an hospitable GOP.
As Princella Smith, a GOP activist and former political aide, wrote online the other day, referring to the four timid candidates, "the time is up for this kind of cowardice....It is absolutely ridiculous to snub an entire demographic of an electorate and then ask to lead their country. If this is their train of thought, I feel they are not worthy to lead."
Now that the Senate Democrats have failed in their last serious bid to alter Bush's Iraq war strategy - yesterday, their proposal to set rules on troop redeployments was defeated by the Senate Republicans who are sticking with Bush - it appears that a new era on Capitol Hill is at hand. We will soon move to the phase of open political warfare.
Democrats will no longer try to forge compromises with wavering GOP senators, because apparently that tactic is futile. From now on, in all likelihood, Democrats will fix their eyes on 2008, and seek to portray the Republicans as pro-war obstructionists who would rather stand with the unpopular lame duck than with the American majority. The Democratic goal, of course, is to elect a president and strong congressional majorities that will work together to end the war in 2009.
But what would "ending the war" really mean? Hillary Clinton has signaled for months that a sizeable contingent of U.S. troops, albeit with a reduced combat mission, will be required in Iraq for the foreseeable future. And her chief rival, Barack Obama is now saying much the same thing. Here's a key passage from his foreign policy speech last week, a passage that has been largely overlooked:
"We will need to retain some forces in Iraq and the region. We'll continue to strike at al Qaeda in Iraq. We'll protect our forces as they leave, and we will continue to protect U.S. diplomats and facilities..."
How many forces? For how long? How would he draw distinctions between "al Qaeda in Iraq" and all the other sources of violence, ensuring that we were only striking at the former? By "facilities," is he referring to the sprawling military bases that Bush has built, seemingly with a permanent presence in mind?
In other words, even if the Democrats win all the short-term political battles on Capitol Hill between now and election day, the hard questions, about the nature of our long-range involvement, will await them in 2009.
Late update: Hey, it turns out that the Democratic Senate has finally managed to assemble a veto-proof majority and speak out on the war that has sowed chaos in the heart of the Middle East, killed nearly 3,800 American soldiers, cost American taxpayers $10 billion a month. The big vote was held today, and 72 senators came together...
...to condemn a newspaper ad.
That's right. The Democrats, while apparently powerless to change the Bush war strategy, were downright resolute on the burning issue of whether a left-wing antiwar group trafficked in dumb hyperbole in a newspaper ad.
If I read this Congress correctly, the war itself is less important than whether an interest group called somebody a nasty name. No wonder Congress' positive job approval rating is heading toward single digits. As Chris Dodd, one of the "no" voters, remarked in his futile attempt to provide some perspective, "It is a sad day in the Senate when we spend hours debating an ad while our young people are dying in Iraq."