Campaigns generally end because they run out of money. Candidates fail to garner support and donations for a variety of reasons. But I seem to recall that last summer, when the debates began, Democratic Party pooh-bahs congratulated themselves on how the rainbow array of candidates reflected the racial and ethnic diversity of the party’s base. The debate scheduled for Jan. 14 in Des Moines, however, promises to be an all-white affair.
~Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, January 2, 2020
Far be it from me to question the perspective of a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, but when I read Robinson’s op-ed titled, “Democrats are starting to look like a ‘Whites only’ party,” I could not believe he had joined the circular firing squad by which Democrats seem to do everything they can to pull defeat from the jaws of victory in November. And I understand one of the nation’s preeminent African-American journalists thinks the party should take a second look at the rules which determine who participates in each debate and who does not. But the issue is much bigger than debate rules.
Let me start by reminding readers, I think presidential debates, by their very nature, are a disservice to voters. They are not part of a chief executive’s job description. As I have said before, I would prefer the equivalent of moot court. Provide each candidate a situation likely to arise during his/her administration. Then give each 10 minutes to both explain the issue and propose a course of action a la a presidential address to the nation. Being president is not improvisation; it is about well thought out and articulated actions.
But if you are going to have debates, equating the ethnic makeup of the last five Democratic contenders to qualify for the January event as backtracking on diversity seems a stretch. At risk of opening some old wounds in the the struggle for civil rights and social justice, Robinson’s words remind me a lot of the debate over quotas versus affirmative action. I hope he is not suggesting the Democratic Party is not committed to diversity unless it requires a person of color be a finalist for its nomination for president. Even he admits that the first debates included several non-Caucasian aspirants. These entrants in the presidential sweepstakes had the opportunity to make their cases. However, for whatever reason, none appear to have “garnered the support and donations” to sustain their viability prior to primary season. There is a difference between a chance and a guarantee.
Yet, I am more bothered by Robinson’s implicit definition of diversity. The final five include a self-proclaimed socialist, a progressive and three centrists. There are two women and three males. There is a gay man. They all have different life narratives. And while they may share overarching policy goals, they have presented diverse options by which to achieve the desired ends.
Likewise, assessing commitment to diversity based solely on one person, the president, overlooks what might be a more relevant factor. I doubt Robinson would be satisfied with an African-American or Hispanic chief executive whose cabinet and White House staff consisted mostly of white males (you know, like the one we have now). What if the initial 20-person debate stage was a platform for identifying potential cabinet members and policy advisors? For me, a commitment to diversity means replacing Bill Barr with someone like Kamala Harris (although color is not the only thing that would change). Or Stephen Miller with Julian Castro.
If you believe, as I do, what used to be the Republican Party is now a cult dependent on the whims of one person, Robinson may be right. However, if the goal is a presidency that is representative of the country as a whole the color, gender or sexual orientation of the person at the top becomes less important than the team he or she assembles to govern the nation. The only other option to satisfy everyone is a sexually fluid individual of multiple ethnic origin. Good luck finding one.
For what it’s worth.