Joe Biden and all-white presidential debate moderators force reluctant politicos to talk race
As much as Democrats and Republicans try to avoid it, talk about the racial impact of this coming election bursts onto the national stage at the most unexpected times.
This week, that moment came courtesy of an official who often commits the classic politician's gaffe -- saying what's really on his mind -- vice president Joe Biden.
He said Tuesday that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wants to "let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put y'all back in chains." Because he was addressing a crowd with a large portion of black folks in it -- in a town which was the last headquarters of the Confederacy and was the site of historic civil rights protests in the 1960s -- journalists, commentators and other politics rightly pointed out the seemingly coded race talk in Biden's words.
But I say Biden's big mistake wasn't that he accused the GOP of favoring polices which would return black people to economic slavery.
His big mistake was that, like all politicians, he didn't offer any plain, direct talk about race. Instead, he hinted at it in language which could be denied later, just like Romney, Newt Gingrich and many others.
Obviously, the racial impact of Republican policies is not a fight his boss, Barack Obama, wants to pick right now. His goal is trying hard not to lose white male independent voters who might be disillusioned with his administration and considering joining the party which has always dominated voting among white people, the GOP.
The last thing he wants is to be seen as a black politician accusing white institutions of racism.
When asked by -- of all places -- Entertainment Tonight what he thought of the Biden controversy, instead of detailing how deregulating banks actually could disproportionally hurt black and brown people, Obama accused the news media of creating the furor. The president called it "an example of (how) what the American people hear and what the press corps want to focus on are two very different things."
He used similar language when the bleatings of birthers such as Donald Trump finally forced him to hold a press conference affirming he was a U.S. citizen. The fault didn't lie with racist opponents using any sleazy untruth to make voters uneasy with him; it was the press' fault for reporting on their nonsense.
Bad enough that Democrats were walking away from straight talk on race. Romney did the same thing Wednesday on CBS This Morning, when asked what his problems were, specifically, with what Biden said.
Instead of telling anchor Anthony Mason that the vice president had accused the GOP of economically enslaving black people, he replied "I think I've expressed myself well enough. I think the American people had the same reaction, which is they listened to the Vice President and they thought, again, an unfounded charge and a metaphor which is not uplifting, not uniting, but one which is, once again, a divisive attack."
Actually, Mitt, you didn't really express yourself at all.
Surrogates and media figures have dissected the racial angles of the controversy. But as usual, all that talk comes from a strategy perspective: Was it coded language? Has it demeaned our political discourse? Will it turn off voters? (it's been interesting to see people who had no problem with Gingrich calling Obama the "food stamp president" look shocked at Biden's coded allegation that GOP economic policies will hobble black people.)
Nobody's really asking if there's a truth to the criticism. Or if there is truth there, why won't any of the candidates talk about the issue in plain language?
Similar dodging surfaced in the furor over moderators chosen for this year's presidential debates. Amid a flurry of stories about the lack of female representation in moderators, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced a gender-balanced slate of hosts, overlooking one small detail. They were all white people.
I wrote a column noting that by ignoring past moderator Gwen Ifill, they advance an all-white slate of moderators for the first time in 16 years.
The CEO for Spanish language network Univision sent the Commission a letter suggesting another debate led by its anchor team; Wednesday night, anchor Jorge Ramos said the channel would invite both candidates to a forum on Hispanic issues, encouraging viewers to use the hashtag #DebateUnivision to press for a debate.
While I disagree with the assertion in the CEO's letter that the current lineup of moderators can't "speak credibly to the concerns of Hispanics in America," it is jarring to note the lack of ethnic diversity. But in its response to the controversy, the commission released a statement mostly sidestepping the issue, saying "we strongly believe that the four journalists we have named see their assignment as representing all Americans in their choice of topics and questions."
But given that the commission presented a gender-balanced moderator slate this year, why does ethnic diversity not rate consideration? And why won't the commission talk about it?
Those who lament the state of our current political dialog should note the biggest problem here is that no one will talk sensibly about the issues at hand -- both because race is such an explosive topic and because the politicians both need to court white voters.
So why don't we stop wringing hands about the candidates' gloves coming off and just insist they actually talk about the issues they are often too squeamish to address directly?