I have not been taking the Republican debates as seriously as I perhaps should. Something about the lineup and the forum has struck me as ridiculous from the start, and it annoys me that these debates are being held so long before the election that no one will remember them.
Notwithstanding my concerns, I agreed to cover tomorrow night’s GOP debate at Morgan State University in Maryland. Naturally, I assumed that all or most of the candidates would be there.
So it was a bit of a shocker to read this editorial by Robert Cox:

One by one, the four leading candidates for the Republican nomination for president have announced they will not participate. This is not only a strategic mistake for these campaigns but also a major embarrassment for the Republican Party.
How can voters take seriously a candidate asking for their support to be leader of the free world when that same candidate is unwilling to take questions from black journalists, in front of a predominantly black audience?
The absence of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson from what has been, so far, the only nationally televised debate to focus solely on topics of interest of black Americans sends a very clear message that not only is the Republican Party not interested in courting the “black vote” but is not even willing to engage on issues of importance to African-Americans.
This goes beyond any one campaign. It is nothing less than a disgrace for the entire country. Is it any wonder that when Kanye West blurts out “President Bush hates black people” on national television that many black Americans nod their heads in agreement?

It’s not just Kanye West. Here’s Bob Herbert, writing in yesterday’s New York Times:

I applaud the thousands of people, many of them poor, who traveled from around the country to protest in Jena, La., last week. But what I’d really like to see is a million angry protesters marching on the headquarters of the National Republican Party in Washington.
Enough is enough. Last week the Republicans showed once again just how anti-black their party really is.
The G.O.P. has spent the last 40 years insulting, disenfranchising and otherwise stomping on the interests of black Americans. Last week, the residents of Washington, D.C., with its majority black population, came remarkably close to realizing a goal they have sought for decades — a voting member of Congress to represent them.
A majority in Congress favored the move, and the House had already approved it. But the Republican minority in the Senate — with the enthusiastic support of President Bush — rose up on Tuesday and said: “No way, baby.”
At least 57 senators favored the bill, a solid majority. But the Republicans prevented a key motion on the measure from receiving the 60 votes necessary to move it forward in the Senate. The bill died.
At the same time that the Republicans were killing Congressional representation for D.C. residents, the major G.O.P. candidates for president were offering a collective slap in the face to black voters nationally by refusing to participate in a long-scheduled, nationally televised debate focusing on issues important to minorities.

So, it turns out that what I’m supposed to cover is a slap in the face to black voters.
I should try to keep my sense of humor, I guess. Hey, it’s more than the gay voters got, which was a big fat zero. (Bear in mind that Bush got 25% of the gay vote, which was considerably more than the black vote.)
Joe Gandelman criticizes the GOP as the “no show” party, and notes they’re running away from the Latino vote as well.
Maybe the message is “when you’re slapped in the face, you’ll take it, and like it!”
I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, it’s always bad politics to appear to insult any group of people. On the other hand, identity politics can get crazy in a way that even single issue politics can’t. To illustrate, suppose the NRA hosted a debate, and billed it as a focus on issues of interest to gun owners. Candidates who failed to show could fairly be judged as unfriendly to the NRA’s goals. Similarly, if a major anti-abortion or anti-immigration organization held a debate, one could judge the candidates’ position on those issues.
But when you move from there to a larger organization said to be speaking for a group of people sharing characteristics which are not inherently political, who gets to say what those positions should be, and who gets to speak for whom? If the N.O.W. hosted a debate, and Republicans failed to show, would they be slapping all women in the face? Or only supporters of N.O.W.?
It gets complicated. But all of these concerns aside, I think that from a political perspective, it is very poor judgment on the part of Republicans to not attend tomorrow night.
Quite astutely, James Joyner criticizes the Republicans as too cowardly to make a principled argument against identity politics:

citing “scheduling conflicts” is a rather lame way of excusing these snubs. The Democratic candidates all managed to fit it into their schedule with far less advanced notice; indeed, this date was selected after agreement of all the major Republican candidates (except perhaps Thompson, who wasn’t officially in the race at the time). It would have been far better to take the stand that they’re only going to debate American issues, not “hypenated American” issues. Simply rejecting the whole notion of segmenting the debates as if there are presidents of Gay America or Black America or White America would have been a far more courageous position — and one consistent with Republican principles.

Back to Robert Cox:

Broadcast live nationally on PBS-owned stations, as well as live and on tape delay on PBS affiliates and on NPR, the All-American Forum represents a unique opportunity for Republicans to do something they have claimed to want for many years — a chance to speak directly with black Americans — and all Americans for that matter — on issues of race without the filter of self-appointed black leaders or black organizations beholden to the Democratic Party.
Knowing that about nine out of 10 black voters have cast their ballots for the Democratic presidential candidate over the past two decades, the candidates can have little doubt that the audience at the All-American Forum is not likely to be receptive to Republican candidates or Republican policies.
But how can Republican supporters, many of whom labeled Democrats “cowards” for refusing to debate on the Fox News Channel, remain silent while their candidates run and hide from Tavis Smiley, one of the most congenial black talk show hosts on TV today?
It’s not too late. There are still two more days until the debate.
Let’s hope that the front-running GOP candidates have a change of heart. If the Republican Party wants to be taken seriously on issues of race, especially in the black community, then the time has come for its presidential candidates to show up — or shut up.

It should be interesting.