Tonight's NBC candidates debate was like being in two places at once. First, a third of the debate was spent with three seasoned journalists chasing days old stories about Clinton and Obama campaign supporters comments about racial politics. As often seems to be the case, the two white male journalists asked their questions, and the female journalist read questions submitted over the internet (too general an observation-- sometimes the female gets to take audience questions.)
The kicker was when Brian Williams asked Senator Obama about inaccurate emails on the internet claiming he is a muslim, and Senator Obama's emabarrased laugh as he clarified that he is a Christian. Then to the sponors before a straight -faced second segment on the economy and the war in Iraq.
What is going on here? A muffled voice in the audience called out "this is race baiting," several times before stopping or being stopped.
In the final hour of the debate an amazing thing happened. In response to a question about the dropout rate of African American students, Senator Obama talked openly about race. He talked about the high dropout rate of African American and Latino children, and the imprtance of early childhood education. He said there is a need to spend billions of dollars on childhood education, saying every dollar spent on this produces a ten dollar return. Obama talked about the need for after school and summer school programs because minority youth don't have that kind of supervision. "I was raised by a single mom and grandparents," said Obama. "African American fathers all too often are absent from the home," Obama continued, speaking "as someone who was raised without a father."
As Tim Russert began to ask the next question, Senator Clinton jumped in. "This is a black brown debate and we really haven't gotten to those issues. I commend Barack for taking on the full range." She went on to talk about her work on these issues with a debate sponsor, and Edwards was then asked by the moderators to respond as well.
Russert went on to his question about homicides and gun control, the final question before the last break and final minutes remaining.
The candidates had to push the moderators to stop asking about the politics of race and force a discussion on actual challenges faced by minorities. That single question and answer was brief and not followed up on despite all three candidates obvious desire to take the discussion further.
Imagine if the moderators had taken this train of thought further and ad-libbed some questions about what it is like for minorities growing up in America and how to create a sense of the equal opportunity outlined in our Constitution. Imagine if they had discussed the challenges faced by single mothers of all races, or of working mothers trying to balance work and childcare needs. These issues would have been natural follow-ups but they were not asked. Instead, the issues of race and gender were put back in their box with no new ground broken. And tomorrow, the headlines will be not about the issues related to race and gender inequities that effect all Americans. They press will continue to press forward the superficial issues of the campaign tactics related to the politics of race and gender instead.
What a lost opportunity.