I had the opportunity to attend last night's All-American Presidential Forum for Republican candidates, hosted by Tavis Smiley and held at Morgan State University. I didn't attend for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the tickets became available after I had already committed to attending my Quaker meeting's monthly spiritual formation gathering. For another, if the four GOP frontrunners didn't care to show, well, I wasn't going to worry about it too much either, frankly. It's not like there's a huge chance of me voting Republican in the upcoming presidential election to begin with.
K and I did manage to catch the last half of the debate on TV when we got home last night. My principal reactions were disgust at the cavalcade of benchwarmers and never-will-bes who took the stage, and exasperation and disappointment at Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain, Fred Thompson, and Mitt Romney for the "scheduling conflicts" that ostensibly prevented them from making an appearance.
Okay, so I wasn't born yesterday. I realize that: a) African-American voters break overwhelmingly Democrat, particularly in a presidential race; b) the GOP is in serious trouble as they move into primary season, since no candidate has emerged who can unify and galvanize the party; c) this Sunday marks the third-quarter fundraising deadline for presidential hopefuls, and the Republican candidates need to raise as much cash as they can to demonstrate that they can seriously contend with Democratic big dogs Clinton and Obama; and d) every moment that a Republican candidate spends at a forum that will never yield the money or votes he needs is a moment he could be using to raise bucks and gladhand the party's base. So the campaigns of the top contenders surveyed the landscape, did some pretty basic math, and told their candidates that there were more productive uses of their Thursday night than to engage in quixotic attempts to court a demo that is certain to remain firmly in the other camp.
But still. Think of the missed opportunity for these candidates to have engaged in a serious discussion about issues of real importance as they affect African-Americans: affirmative action, poverty, Iraq, health care, drugs, the death penalty, minorities in the military, intervention in Darfur. Or, on a more prosaic note, think of the good PR that would have been generated by having the top tier of Republican presidential candidates coming to a historically black college to field questions from some of the finest journalists in America: Smiley, Cynthia Tucker, Juan Williams, Ray Suarez, and Tom Joyner. With the low expectations of Republican contenders in such a venue, one of the frontrunners could have distinguished himself from the rest of the pack, perhaps even scoring some points with moderate voters in the process.
Instead, who did we get? Well, for one, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, whose campaign site currently shows him brandishing a handgun and who, according to Rolling Stone, advocates bombing Mecca, receives support from a white supremacy group, and favors repealing all immigration, illegal or otherwise. For another, Congressman Ron Paul, an obstetrician from Texas who, as a self-proclaimed libertarian is for an immediate pullout from Iraq, against adoptions by same-sex parents, for massive tax cuts, against gun control in any form, for campaign finance reform, against affirmative action, and who, if last night's histrionics are any example, is a total loon.
Then there was archconservative Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who, in addition to apparently regarding the proliferation of pornography as a priority issue on a par with terrorism, is a co-sponsor (with Democratic Senator Joe Biden) of an amendment that would create a three-state solution for Iraq that would involve partitioning the country along religious and ethnic lines. 'Cause, you know. That worked so well for India and Pakistan.
Let's see, who else? Oh yeah, there was California Representative Duncan Hunter, who is such a fan of our constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of speech that wants to cut off all federal funding to Columbia University, in retaliation for the schools' allowing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak there this week. Rumor has it that Congressman Hunter is a much more vigorous supporter of the Second Amendment than he is of the First.
Alan Keyes brought his own unique brand of crazy to last night's proceedings. The perennial candidate and onetime highest-ranking African-American in the Reagan administration has made a name for himself in recent years by defending Judge Roy Moore, attempting to intervene in the Terry Schiavo case, and lashing out at homosexuals, this last despite the fact that his own daughter is a queer activist. More recently, Keyes carpetbagged his way into the 2004 Illinois senate race, where he was handily defeated by Barack Obama. Keyes brought to the Morgan State forum the same understated dignity that he used when he declared that Jesus Christ wouldn't vote for Obama.
It says something when a paleoconservative, creationist, Southern Baptist minister like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee comes off as intelligent, rational, civil, and even presidential compared with the other candidates on stage. Huckabee is wrong (at least in my opinion) on gays, guns, the death penalty, and evolution. But he's okay on health care, and immigration, and he received overall high marks as governor. It was interesting to watch how he articulated his positions. While his issue stances are pretty much diametrically opposed to mine, K and I found ourselves responding his tone, which was measured and reasonable-sounding.
That tone, and in fact Huckabee's very appearance at last night's forum, reflected sentiments expressed in remarks earlier this month, in which he said, " "If Republicans don't win minority votes and votes that we traditionally don't get, Hillary Clinton's the next president." Of the crowded field of GOP candidates, including the top four contenders, Huckabee is the one I find most interesting. But that, to be sure, is damning with faint praise.