The pre-debate discussion and beginning of the debate itself contained an almost palpable sense of disappointment and indignation surrounding the lack of attendance by many of the front-running Republican candidates. Tom Joyner opened the debate and was the first to refer to this lack with a joke that hit a bit too close to home- thanking those who “are viewing from home…Rudy Guiliani, John McCain, Fred Thompson…”. This theme continued by Mr. Smiley, who, by explicitly refusing to comment on the lack of candidates, said more than commenting could. And the quiet commentary on this lack was further highlighted when the candidates filed in to a stage with podiums kept empty for their missing fellow candidates. Several candidates then expressed “disgust” and “embarassment” when presented with the question of why they attended.
Criminal justice was an issue raised several times in the course of the debate. While most candidates skirted the issue, Hunter being called out on by Smiley for doing so, Huckabee, in this issue and most, showed a sensitivity to the question within a racial context while not focusing on it. He favored drug rehabilitation rather than repeated incarcaration. Other candidates, such as Tancredo, on this and other issues, skirted addressing race at all though it was specifically inserted as part of the question.
Healthcare was brought up in a minority context, but didn’t enter the conversation at all until the last half hour of the debate. Huckabee again brought forth good points, pushing for preventitive medicine and patient control of medical records, but skirted addressing how to give access to healthcare for all Americans. Ron Paul and Brownback typically emphasized less government and more choices, while the issue of savings accounts for health care was brought up by Brownback and reinforced by Tancredo along with an emphasis on “personal responsbility” regarding health, which seemed like a short-sided and hands off approach that could most lightly be characterized as insensitive. No Republican candidate seemed to feel or say that it was the government’s role to radically alter health care, and the only radical solutions proposed had to do with “personal responsibility”.
Huckabee showed to be the clear “winner” if one can be declared. His answers were logical and mostly addressed the issues presented, though toward the second half, he showed to skirt the actual issue addressed in favor of presenting a side of the general issue brought up that showed him in a favorable light (for example, he skirted questions about Darfur and somehow used it as a segway for talking about abortion and poverty).
Clearly, those absent were losers and were powerfully but not overtly shown as such by the candidates and moderators. No candidate other than Huckabee showed any sort of sympathetic sensitivity to the racial context in which the debate was presented. Brownback and Hunter tried for personal sensitivity by referring to personal experiences that were only vaguely related to the racial/minority situations presented and therefore looked even less sensitive to the issues presented.
In general, I felt that the format was flawed in that candidates used pointed questions to express general ideas instead of actually responding to questions asked. Any question with a racial bent was often responded to without any sort of reference to that (“oh you’re asking about health care? Ok personal responsibility blah blah blah”). I had wished they had been pushed to talk more about race, inequalities, and social equality, but as we discussed at the end, some of the candidates’ lack of comfort around African Americans and while addressing African American issues was almost palpable, which highlighted what had been our main point in the pre debate discussion: we need to have more community dialogue about race and politics! We need to feel empowered to get together and talk about political, social, and race issues and feel that we can make changes and inform ourselves by discussion with other citizens of all races and cultures.