by Charles D. Ellison
Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune
Of course, there will be plenty of plucky best moments snapshots of Thursday night’s Republican debate in Cleveland and infinite takes on who won to fill the week’s headlines.
Yet, to Black voters paying attention, most notable was the convenient absence of big ticket race-related and racism-triggered issues that have kept a politically polarized nation steadily transfixed since the death of Black Ferguson teen Michael Brown a full year ago. Fox News moderators pretty much stayed laser focused on what Republican base voters wanted: a check-the-box conversation full of probes into GOP candidate views on border security, wars abroad, abortion and other issues.
But topics such as police misconduct were barely touched, save one obligatory soft-pitched question and softball response. Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), self-styled libertarian champion of criminal justice reform, didn’t say anything about it. Come-from-behind presidential hopeful Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) was more comfortable discussing gay weddings before a largely ultra-conservative audience than dropping any hint he was aware of police shootings in his own state.
Meanwhile, observers race to determine who won hinged on any number of takeaways from the most persuasive analysis in the post-mortem. When asked who won and lost the debate, a next-day released Gravis Marketing Poll showed a defiant Donald Trump placing second on the win (19 percent) and second on the lost (30 percent), yet the big surprise for many observers was the soft rise of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson who surged three points ahead of Trump as a viewer favorite.
Trump clearly won when seen in the context of which name or campaign brand carried the most trend the day after. However, Carson’s ascendancy as something of a post-debate focus group favorite put a strangely ironic Black face on a debate highly defined by heavy strokes of white voter anxiety and disillusionment.
While under three percent of the known Republican primary electorate is African American, there was little question the first real GOP debate held enormous importance for a broader African-American electorate nervous over who will replace Barack Obama in 2016. And while Fox News and the Republican National Committee had no real political obligation to the Black viewing audience to address any issues a weary Black Electorate had prioritized as of late, other hot button topics such as immigration and ISIL were immersed in all sorts of racially-singed undertones.
That was expected considering the extremely low clout of Black voters in selecting a GOP nominee.
Even with its massive national audience, it was not a debate specifically designed for audiences of color eager for clues on where candidates stood with their issues. Nor did observers have any illusions about a 90-minute prime time slot challenged by a crowded stage of egocentric pols desperately seeking breakout moments. Few expressed shock that Fox News moderators would spend much time on anything even remotely related to recent front and center issues on police misconduct and Voting Rights. Despite years of active GOP pushing on voter ID and other electoral suppression laws as if voter fraud should be a top policy issue, there was nary a mention or whisper about it in Cleveland on Thursday, and on the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act passage.
Overall, moderators, with their 20 questions, made certain to stay clear of questions that touched too intimately on the touchy topic of race. But, it all depends on viewer expectations and one’s ability to deconstruct racial coding. The topic of immigration took up enormous oxygen in the room, its jagged racial edges a thorny litmus test for candidates who needed tough-talking, border-closing street cred for a red-meat conservative audience. That debate participants committed as much time as they did to “illegals” and their rhetorical portraits of violent “sanctuary cities” perhaps offered as much a glimpse into white voter fear of rapid demographic changes (as the nation turns browner) as a clear sense of what issues will dominate the Republican primaries from now till Super Tuesday next year.
“The fact is … many killings, murders, crime, drugs are pouring across the border, [there’s] money going out and the drugs coming in. [W]e need … to build a wall, we need to keep illegals out,” said Trump to roaring applause and cheers from a packed Cleveland stadium.
Marco Rubio, heralded in a former political life as an immigration reform advocate, seemed to follow suit and reaching beyond Mexico. “The evidence is now clear that the majority of people coming across the border are not from Mexico,” said Rubio. “They’re coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. Those countries are the source of the people that are now coming in its majority. I also believe we need a fence.”
After many raucous moments over immigration, ISIL strategies, NSA surveillance and defunding Planned Parenthood, moderators eventually touched on race. “[M]any in the Black Live Matter movement, and beyond, believe that overly-aggressive police officers targeting young African Americans is the civil rights issue of our time. Do you agree? And if so, how do you plan to address it? And if not, why not?” asked moderator Megyn Kelly.
Interestingly enough, Kelly punted that question to a rather dry performing Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI), with any mention of the four very high profile killings of unarmed Black people that happened in Ohio kept off the table. Walker, predictably dodged it, using controversial and rabidly conservative black Milwaukee County Sherriff David Clarke as “my-Black-friend” cover. With Walkers answer both short and barely registered, Fox – seemingly by design – quickly ended the segment and suspiciously cut to a commercial promoting the upcoming “Straight Outta Compton” movie.
Even with the Buckeye State’s governor mere yards away from Walker, it appeared odd that no one thought to ask him about cases such as Tamir Rice right there in Cleveland, John Crawford in Beaver Creek or even the more recent Sam Dubose case in Cincinnatti. Kasich didn’t raise it either, the two-term governor who won with nearly a quarter Black support in his state eager to pivot to a whiter national Republican electorate.
But no debate featuring its lone Black Republican star could end without moderators scripting him into a broader question on race, plucking him into a moment of tokenism that didn’t seem to phase the former surgeon.
“One of the issues that the public was very interested in, and we touched on it earlier, is race relations in this country, and how divided we seem right now,” Kelly asked. “[What], if anything, you can do, you would do as the next president to help heal that divide.”
“You know, we have the purveyors of hatred who take every single incident between people of two races and try to make a race war out of it and drive wedges into people. And this does not need to be done,” Carson opined in what seemed like a standard template Black Republican response.