You know, when George W. Bush was the candidate, it was understandable that the Republicans wanted to avoid potential public meltdowns in the form of televised debates. This presidential cycle, however, brings us an interesting twist: as candidates for the GOP ticket decline various debates, prominent Republicans are publicly warning that these apparent scheduling conflicts will come back to haunt the party in 2008. Perry Bacon, Jr., writes for the Washington Post:
Key Republican leaders are encouraging the party’s presidential candidates to rethink their decision to skip presidential debates focusing on issues important to minorities, fearing a backlash that could further erode the party’s standing with black and Latino voters.
The leading contenders for the Republican nomination have indicated they will not attend the “All American Presidential Forum” organized by black talk show host Tavis Smiley, scheduled for Sept. 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore and airing on PBS. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) all cited scheduling conflicts in forgoing the debate. The top Democratic contenders attended a similar event in June at Howard University.
It’s hard to argue with the warnings. Newt Gingrich said, “For Republicans to consistently refuse to engage in front of an African American or Latino audience is an enormous error,” and called the scheduling excuse “disingenuous” and “baloney”. Former Congressman Jack Kemp–the GOP vice-presidential candidate in 1996–noted, “We sound like we don’t want immigration; we sound like we don’t want black people to vote for us ….” And it’s true. Gathering for a debate under the moderation of Tavis Smiley would help to diminish that perception, though a debate appearance here and there would only be a starting point. Minority communities seem wary of the Grand Ol’ Party, which could not even rally support among its ranks for the president’s immigration proposal. Instead, Republicans sent a strong message that they are afraid of Mexico and Mexicans. Perhaps this sentiment among Republicans is why the candidates all, with the exception of Arizona Senator John McCain, declined invitations to debate on the nation’s largest Hispanic television network, Univision. It took an unnamed advisor at an unnamed GOP campaign to make the pertinent response: “What’s the win? …. Why would they go into a crowd where they’re probably going to get booed?”
The answer, of course, is twofold. First, attending the Morgan State University and Univision debates would at once show respect to communities that feel alienated by the GOP’s outlook and also demonstrate that the candidates are not afraid of tough questions from tough crowds. Secondly, the candidates would have a chance to counter the jeers and boos, to put forward policy proposals that could win over what is perceived as a hostile crowd.
It is easy enough to theorize that most of the candidates lack such policy proposals, and even that they lack such courage. The question of respect, though, is perhaps the most haunting. Candidates can win without courage, and without bright policy proposals; consider the current president, who is busy botching a second term. Voters will follow pocketbook promises and jingoism, as we’ve seen in recent years; they will not follow someone they perceive as lacking respect for them.