Hello, and welcome to Baltimore and Morgan State University for the first-ever PBS Black Voter Forum, proud to welcome half the GOP presidential candidates! In honor of same, tonight we've got half the liveblogging staff — it's just me, alas, on this Thursday night, but I'll do what I can to render this forum unto you in all it's Giuliani-less glory. There are funds to be raised, people, let's get our priorities straight! We're starting a little late but thanks to the world of DVR we've got it covered (that and the season premiere of The Office — an hour long tonight in keeping with the theme of going double or nothing). So! Without further ado, we present yet another in our endless HuffPo Debate Liveblog Series — where we watch the debates and critique the candidates in real time — or at least whoever bothered to show up. Jena 6, Fred Thompson, heard of it? Precisely. Okay, here we go!
[Update: It's a live-ish blog, because your trusty blogger is a little under the weather today, and it's really, really easy to rely on our DVR. So check back frequently. That's part of my secret campaign for clicks!]
9:01: Tom Joyner of the Tom Joyner Morning Show takes the stage, welcomes all.
9:02: Icebreaker! He feels a little out of his element, like Dan Rather at CBS premiere week! Already this crowd is having way more fun than last night's. Already, he is beating out Tim Russert in a key area: My God, will you look at that brilliant shirt-tie-handkerchief combo. We'll Joyn you any time, Tom! (Okay we'll leave the jokes to Tom).
9:03: Like this one: "To the esteemed candidates, whether you're pro-life or pro-choice, for the war in Iraq or against it, for Kanye West or 50 Cent" — Try the veal! — "it's your turn to share your message with an audience that's stretched further than it's ever been stretched before. And that's a good thing." Wow, I will try the veal. This guy is good.
9:04: Line of the night!! "And let me take a moment to say hello to those of you viewing from home &,mdash; Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain, Governor Mitt Romney, and Senator Fred Thompson." ZING! Nicely done! And a twist of the knife, sending out a genuine shout-out to Mychal Bell of the Jena 6, released from jail just today.
9:05: "I can only hope that Republican candidates that hope to become the president of all the people are here tonight." Segue to anniversary of Little Rock 9...and to Jena 6: "Pretending that racism does not exist only assures us that we'll be revisiting the ame issues another 50 years from now, another 5 months from now...maybe even another 5 minutes from now." Wait, is George Allen in the house?
9:06: Welcome to Tavis Smiley, who strides onstage and is, actually, smiley. And why not? So far, that is easily the most feel-good and inspiring start to any debate. This is a welcome new model. Love to see it adopted in later debates. It's actually quite inspiring.
9:07: Lovely quote by Smiley from Cornel West: "You can't lead the people if you don't love the people, and you can't save the people if you can't serve the people." Wow. Words to tack up on the White House fridge.
9:07: Asks Smiley of the Republican candidates: "What's the depth of your love for everyday people?" Oh, that one again. Mitt's getting sick of hearing that one.
9:09: GOP in the house! Ken Mehlman, Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp, and Michael Steele. Wow - brilliant move on the part of Newt, I must say. He is so plotting his entrance no matter who does or doesn't put up $30 million. Extremely smart of him to take this opportunity for fence-mending visibility (because some people do still hold that Spanish thing against him). Oh, look, there's a screenshot of Ken Mehlman. Hello, Mehlman.
9:10: Here is Michael Steele. "Good evening, and welcome" — again. More on Little Rock 9, and how President Dwight Eisenhower brought in the 101st airborne to make sure that the country went firmly down the path of desegregation. Segue to how African Americans and Republicans are coming together tonight — that is, all those Republican who showed up. Let me know when that joke gets old, I'm still not tired of it.
9:12: Twelve minutes in, and finally they introduce the candidates! We're pretty sure it will become a lot less entertaining starting now. Actually, it's sort of moving. These guys are getting more cheers than they can possibly be used to. Mike Huckabee! Huge cheer for grassroots favorite Ron Paul! Cheers for Sam Brownbeck! No, seriously! This crowd is really pumped, but also really polite — yes, that's Tom Tancredo, and yes, those were "whoos." Duncan Hunter! And ormer ambassador Alan Keyes! Wait, huh? Oh, okay, if Google says so. I just don't remember seeing him on Fox with Brit Hume . Good God, Newt, Keyes, Fred Thompson — don't people have the decency to campaign for 18 months anymore?
9:13: Okay, here's the part where it feels very PBS: Total dead air for the awkward photo lineup, and the silent filing into place. With the bright lights and the shiny stage it actually could be a scene from A Chorus Line."I really need this job...Please, God, I need this job...I've got to get this job...." It works, especially later on with the gold lamé leotards and top-hats. Rawr, Huckabee, what have you been hiding? Okay, sorry. Will focus.
9:13: Tavis at the podium! And we're off. Podim order was determined by random drawing - including ALL ten GOP candidates. Oh, excellent. There are four gaping holes in the lineup. The theatrics of this are fantastic. This will be an indelible image of the campaign, these empty slots. Watch for it to come up again and again.
9:14: First question to Huckabee: Why did you come, and what do you have to say to those who didn't show? This feels a bit like the last GOP debate, where Thompson's absent presence loomed large, and last night, when every question seemed to come back to Hillary Clinton. Huckabee says, "I want to be President of the United States, not just President of the Republican Party...frankly, I'm embarrassed. I'm embarrassed for our party and I'm embarrassed for those who didn't come, because there's long been a divide in this country and it doesn't get better when we don't show up." His voice caught a little bit on that last bit — he conveys real sincerity here in his bearing in his voice. He also slips in that there may be a preconception that black voters don't vote Republican, but he certainly didn't notice when he was winning 48% of the black vote in Arkansas. (NB: This stat comes from him.) "I'm honored to be here, I wish all of the candidates had come, but tonight we hopefully will make up their time, and make up their ground." Wow. Terrific opener for Huckabee.
Before we continue (and, sorry guys, this is less "liveblog" because I've got it DVR'd and so I'm pausing freely) one point: Having watched so many of these debates by now, right off the bat I can see a difference. Huckabee was free to speak at length, with no 30 second time limit or dinging Wolf Blitzer bell or showing of hands. There are less candidates here which means more time, but also the frontrunners are gone which means the deck has shuffled completely. Tonight, the big guys are Huckabee and Paul, and right off the top you know it. This will translate into raw numbers, in the primaries and down the line. Enough to make magic happen? Who knows. But this feels significant. More than any of the missing four, McCain really goofed. He alone of those four transmits a message of caring and empathy, of really feeling Cornel West's maxim mentioned above (detour from the Straight Talk Express notwithstanding). His absence is felt more keenly here, and I think the type of voter who responds to him is also the type of voter who will find his absence — and the reason for it — disquieting.
9:15: Ron Paul came because he was invited! And he is happy to talk about freedom and liberty wherever you will have him. Liberty! No taxes! Bring the troops home! Cue wild audience applause.
Brownback: Disgrace that the others aren't here. They're sending a message of narrowing the debate! "I'm sorry - I'm sorry to you, and I'm sorry to those watching that they're not here." He's got a good plan though - belie the preconception that blacks don't vote Republican - register to vote in an early primary - and vote for one of them! Hey man, work it if you got it.
Tancredo: I was the only Republican who joined at the NAACP convention. So there! They clap for him too. Duncan Hunter: "You know, when family members don't show up to family holidays, we talk about 'em." Speaking of family, he has a very cute story about his 6-year old grandson working his teacher for a vote. That will be less cute when he's in his 30s and dropping Grandpa's name.
Alan Keyes says hey, he'll take the path less trodden and speak up for our absent friends. Well, duh - you can't exactly be the one pushing for a perfect attendance policy, now can you? Oh wait, he's saying that he's been trying to get on in there but is facing resistance (has been shut out of Michigan). He did note that he was at the Values Voters event and the others were not. Alas, I am not as up on matters Keysian as I should be. He does have a pleasant and unhurried personablility, but it's more charming than strong. He doesn't say "leader" to me (vis a vis his nonverbals, which we all know matter). Entering this late in the game, that's the one thing you do need (it's the one thing Fred Thompson had, or seemed to).
In any case, behold your candidates.
9:21: Tavis now welcomes Lucille Rowls of Chicago, winner of an online contest for radio listeners (got that? Multi-platform right there - radio to online to TV). Nice way to maximize interactivity, Tavis Smiley and PBS! And everyone else involved! It takes a village! She says that Republican presidents have not exactly left much as a legacy for black Americans. She wants to know what positive and lasting legacy would they leave?
Huckabee is smart; seizes on Eisenhower and Little Rock. Good example. He'd like to leave a legacy of better housing and more fairness in the justice system with respect to drug offenses (paraphrased but that's essentially it). Ron Paul stays on message: Freedom! Individualism! Unencumbered society with freely distributed goods and services! Brownback: We should ponder this, dammit. What would I do? Focus on rebuilding the family...and symbols are important, so he'd be the president who would open a National African American Museum of History on the mall. (He seemed to be waiting for applause there but it didn't happen.) Finally, he drives it home: Official apology from the U.S. gov't for slavery and segregation. Okay, that gets applause.
Tancredo hearkens back to Reagan (and in so doing, hearkens back to that first debate!), but doesn't really want to focus on race - he wants to increase economic opportunity for everyone...and the way to do that is by curbing illegal immigration! And that's how he gets that in there. Hunter remembers practicing law in the barrio, he thinks less taxes, less regulation would help there.
Keyes is going against the grain again, saying that he doesn't see a divide. Wow, he's on a tear - he is in the pulpit, hard, talking about youth and the Creator and being endowed with inalienable rights and Christian beliefs, until Smiley interrupts a few times, and Keyes, unhurried, winds down to his ringing close. Okay, he's a live one. The leadership is obvious but still, it feels too late, like he needs to woo us a little before he presumes to preach to us. Perhaps I'm just old-fashioned.
9:29: Now there are panelists: Cynthia Tucker from the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Charlie Gibson's favorite newspaper; Ray Suarez and Juan Williams, recent BFF to Bill O'Reilly. This debate is very inclusive.
9:30: Too inclusive? Tucker asks why the unemployment rate for black high school gratuates is 30% higher than white high school dropouts. Yowch. Great question — but it's going to EVERYONE. It would be fun to mix it up just a little bit.
Huckabee says that it's an inequality that we need to be aware of. Very impassioned, but he hasn't actually talked about solutions. "Educational opportunities" and "employment opportunities" sorta doesn't cut it. Especially next to Ron Paul, who busts out the work of economist Walter Williams and his analysis of minimum wage laws, which Paul says are at fault: "Once government gets interfering it takes away opportunities." Well, no one can accuse him of pandering. He is on message 100% percent. Brownback says that it's because we're not color-blind. Gee, thanks Einstein. Otherwise he disagrees with Paul - he wants to cleverly use taxes to stimulate growth where necessary. Tancredo doesn't like race-baiting, thinks the black community was doing all right in the 50s, but then the welfare state that "paid people to be in the home." Also, did he mention that immigrants totally suck? Duncan Hunter is all about welfare reform. Alan Keyes thinks that black men found employment opportunities...in prison. Snap! Wait, what? His voice is rising - now we're talking about a culture of hedonism - and that, says Keyes, as Tavis Smiley tries to cut him off, is bad.
9:37: Immigration/path to citiizenship. One by one by one again. Oy. General consensus: Illegal immigrants are a drain. Tancredo thinks you don't have to round people up, you just have to enforce the law. He doesn't mention how you enforce the law against people who are hiding. Hunter is proud of writing the law about the 800-foot border fence. Dude, I wouldn't brag about that.
Keyes is getting more and more strident as this goes on. He's the Mike Gravel of the Republicans!
9:44: Young black and Latinos are alienated from the GOP. Name one reform to assure young people that they'll have equal justice in the courts. Whoa! Brownback spent a couple nights in jail! As a tourist, to look at the system, not for anything COOL. Whatever.
Yep, they're going to go through everyone again. So maybe it's a good thing that Giuliani, Romney, McCain and Thompson sat this one out. By the way, so far the night is Huckabee's - heartfelt and smart, with the same great sincerity and presence he showed the last time. Otherwise it's all about Alan Keyes, though the theatrics get old fast.
The Tanc - The Feds shouldn't be making laws about drugs! And also, the welfare state is destroying the black family. Duncan Hunter says, um, wasn't' there a someone in the Jena 6 who kicked an unconscious kid in the head? 'Cause the rule of law is sorta important here. He also says "you obviously know more about this than me..." which is probably true, but still: Walking into this forum, he probably should have had the foresight to make himself an expert. Oh! Moderator's privilege! Smiley instructs him to actually answer the question.Well, can you blame him for getting distracted? Keyes wants local self-government, judgment from the community. It sounds like he's advocating a council of elders. Huckabee: "The nonsense of three strikes and your out has created a system that is overrun with people and the cost is choking us." Ron Paul takes it back to individ freedoms (natch) and says, hey - we have to roll this idiocy back: "The war on drugs isn't working!" HUGE applause.
9:53: Tucker asks about rigid voter ID laws and what the candidates think about requiring a driver's license, which keeps some people away. This is a DC-specific question. Tanc: "I don't think we're asking too much of people" to get photo ID. Duncan Hunter wants people to keep and bear arms in their homes in DC. What? Well, whatever, he just doesn't want the illegals to storm the polls. Keyes says if you don't want to vote in DC then you can go to Maryland! UPROOT FOR YOUR RIGHT TO VOTE!
Huckabee thinks everyone who wants to get to vote! But people, get photo ID! Wow. This is an example of something that REALLY does not require an answer from all candidates. Ron Paul - originalist - takes it back to the Constitution. He is nothing if not consistent.
10:00: Suarez asks about Latinos falling through the cracks in health care. Duncan Hunter hearkens back to practicing law in the barrio again, then talks about the need to buy insurance across state lines (which presupposes the ability to afford insurance). Keyes says, hello, we need to FIX THE FAMILY! I DON'T HEAR YOU TAVIS I DON'T HEAR YOU NYA NYA NYA! Huckabee says our money is wasted on treatment when we could be investing in prevention. Borwnback = Health Savings Accounts. Tanc: Your health care is yours! Take responsibility! We have gotten away from the original question, I think. "You should be able to get your drugs from anyplace that it's cheaper to get drugs!" Well then, that's a whole other story.
10:07: Juan Williams takes a moment to acknowledge black military heroes, and points out one in the crowd: Bernice Armour, the first female African American combat pilot in US history, two tours of distinction in Iraq. Aw. Huge applause for her as she beams. Question: There has been a decrease in minority enlistment. Segue to generic Iraq war question: What's your plan? At this performance, Keyes will be playing the role of Giuliani and bring it back to 9/11. Calls Bush "G.W. Bush." Okay then.
Huckabee: We haven't kept our promises to our military. As president, a Veteran's Bill of Rights. Deliver what was promised. Hunter wants a good Iraqi army. The way he describes it, it sounds totally possible! Oh, here's Smiley using moderator's privilege. Yep, he's regretting the dilly-dallying up top.
10:15. Darfur. What should our role be? Huckabee takes it back to infanticide IN OUR OWN COUNTRY! Millions of unborn babies being slaughtered! Whoa, all the sudden Huckabee ran right, right, right! We don't need to go LOOKING for genocide and poor people, we got 'em right here in this country! So, to clarify, we guess you don't have much interest in Darfur. Okay, then. Ron Paul is worried about the path of good intentions here, and by the way, was Darfur in the Constitution? Bring the troops home! Brownback: "I know this won't be a crowd-pleaser but I couldn't disagree more." And he gets a huge applause! For disagreeing with Ron Paul! Well, for also saying that the US has a moral responsibility to act. Tanc agrees. Delegate it to the UN. Alan Keyes: What Brownback said, but more florid. WE'RE AMERICA, DAMMIT!
10:18: Capital punishment. Thoughts? Ron Paul frankly says that he's changed his stance on this and only this. He's opposed. Brownback: "We need a culture of life in the United States." Tanc: Some crimes DESERVE it. TREASON! Hunter is a big fan of capital punishment as a deterrent. Um, . Keyes thinks that the death penalty ROCKS. Eye for an eye. Life is important! Er, or something. Huckabee had to carry out the death penalty "more times than any other Governor" in his state - but he didn't enjoy it! "God help the person who ever does it without a conscience." Upshot: Huckabee is in favor of the death penalty, apparently
10:23: School desegregation and the rollback of Brown v. Board of Education (with a nod to the Little Rock 9). Juan Williams asks generically if they agree with the Seattle schools decision. Brownback grew up in the cradle of Brown — Topeka, Ka — so he's a fan. Tanc is outraged! It's racist to assume that a black kid would learn more because he's sitting next to a white kid! Er, thanks for that facile argument, numbskull, which completely ignores data about how integration affects quality of education. I suppose it's racist to suggest that a black kid's water fountain tastes different than the white kid's, eh? Hunter lives in a la-la land where schools reflect the community and parents come down for PTA meetings with brownies and warm smiles. No plan, of coruse. Just a generic answer pitching an idealized version of America — the reality of which often does not apply to the constituency being addressed.
10:25: Could it be? Yes! We're out of time! Sorry, but like the clock we maxed out in the first lap. Tavis thanks everyone, la la la! "Good night from Baltimore, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith!" Cheers.
So! What was accomplished here? As an event, this was notable for the specific addressing of black voters, issues and concerns — and how it forced Republicans to take a stand either way. As a debate it was pretty well run, if a little plodding with all the candidates responding to the same questions. No one was really put on the spot — no Tim Russert gotchas — which would have given it more teeth (ie. personalizing the capital punishment question for Huckabee, who has been on the hot seat for it before). Good opportunity for second-tier candidates to get some oxygen; alas, an opportuty for Alan Keyes to do his semi-scary grandstanding. A friend described him as a "professional also-ran"; I'm going to add "attention-seeking bloviator" to that.
But beyond that, this debate didn't elicit all that much that was different, or concrete. A lot of high hopes, a lot of acknowledgment of things not being right, very few cut-through-the-Gordian-knot solutions. And oftentimes those high hopes were untempered by those less-than-right realities. In that last question, Tancredo mentioned "choice", and there's the rub: In the case of lower-income families with limited opportunity or mobility, there ain't much of that to go around. Worrying about taking your health insurance across state lines is one thing; worrying about affording insurance is another.
In my view, the best thing to come out of this debate was Cornel West's quote: "You can't lead the people if you don't love the people, and you can't save the people if you can't serve the people." This brings me back most forcefully to Keyes: Got absolutely zero sense of loving the people or wanting to serve them — it seemed all about the glory and the sound of his own voice. Honestly, the guy who seems to embody it the most is Ron Paul: Guided so clearly by bedrock principles through which all issues are refracted. Either way, as these debates go on — on both sides — it's a quote worth coming back to again and again.
That's it - already some good comments below and far sharper (and zanier) observations than we're capable of at Wonkette here and here. I say "we" but it was just me today, so thanks for your indulgence on my less than "live" pacing (who knew you'd notice?). In this crowded debate field it's easy to miss a few here and there, especially when they're on a smaller stage. I'm glad that this is one of the ones I caught — I think it will bob up in importance as the campaigns wear on. At the very least, I can't wait to hear what the missing Four Horsemen of the Repulican Apocalypse have to say about it.