Do Republicans realize that winning the presidency involves more than targeted attack ads, paying lip service to the party’s extreme and engaging in aggressive anti-world rhetoric? Probably not, because those very things worked so well in 2004.
Democrats may not be much better, but at least they haven’t forgotten that it’s people who vote and that an increasing number of those people tend to be non-rich and non-white. Those are the very people the Republicans have overlooked consistently on the campaign trail and seemed to ignore completely in Tuesday’s debate in Dearborn.
In 2003, Hispanics became America’s largest minority group. With issues like immigration, guest worker programs and health care figuring so prominently into the agenda during this presidential race, you’d think Republicans would have jumped at the chance to directly address Hispanic voters in a Spanish-language debate. They were given that chance in September; they all declined, with the sole exception of John McCain.
Later that month came the party’s abomination at the historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore. In a debate focusing on minority issues moderated by prominent black talk-show host Tavis Smiley, the four leading Republicans (McCain, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani) were all no-shows, citing time conflicts.
So, to summarize, Republicans don’t have time for black people. Coupled with the Hispanics they refuse to speak to, that’s almost 75 million Americans that apparently don’t matter.
Tuesday’s debate in Dearborn – a Detroit suburb home to the highest concentration of Arabs anywhere outside of the Middle East – was another opportunity to reach out to voters who aren’t socially white and may not make five-figure campaign donations. Though this time the Republicans did at least show up, naturally they botched this opportunity too.
By the way they were talking, you’d think they were locked in a war room, forced to react on a dime to an imminent attack on the country. They warned us that “Communist China” would steal everything, right down to the very stars on our flag, if we didn’t do something to stop it. In no uncertain terms, they reiterated that there are a lot of people in the world who want to kill us, justifying things like preemptive strikes and mobilizing for war without congressional approval.
Far from repairing the mess we made in Iraq, the conversation centered on how exactly we should prepare for going into Iran. The lone voice of reason on this issue was Ron Paul, a staunch libertarian who is in favor of dismantling more or less the entire government. You know you’re in trouble when Paul sounds like the most measured, contemplative candidate.
On issues of national security and terrorism, the leading Republicans were nearly unanimous in their antagonistically hawkish outlook. Even in Dearborn, a city where its common to find street signs translated to Arabic, they saw no harm in implying continuing strikes and strife in the Middle East. There may be 30,000 Arabs in Dearborn, but inside the confines of the Ford Community Center, the candidates could conveniently remain oblivious. Having overlooked Hispanic and Black Americans, they could hardly have been expected to offer anything more to Arab-Americans.
So why come to Dearborn at all? To speak to the common American, of course. Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Dearborn, once the bustling center of Ford Motor Company’s manufacturing operations, has in recent years faded into Rust Belt decline and hardship. There were promises to be made and votes to be won. But the situation changes once you put the candidates in an enclosed room and turn the cameras on.
Early in the debate, Thompson personified to perfection the aloofness of the Republican candidates: “I think there is no reason to believe that we’re headed for a recession . We’re enjoying low inflation. We’re enjoying low unemployment.” Who exactly does he mean by “we”? Considering that Michigan’s unemployment rate is more than 7 percent, he surely doesn’t mean us.
Romney, who was born not too far from Dearborn, said, “For me, Michigan is personal.” Then he went on to engage in a tit-for-tat with Giuliani over something as profoundly relevant as the line item veto. The two also traded competing statistics on who cut taxes and who raised them and who has achieved a more deeply spiritual hatred of Hillary Clinton. Romney also took cheap shots at Gov. Jennifer Granholm and clashed with Paul over the war in Iraq (while advocating that lawyers should decide whether or not we invade a country).
The son of Michigan’s beloved former governor George Romney did not mention Michigan again at any point during the debate.
In anticipation of the debate, Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party pointed out that metro Detroit has a large population of Reagan Democrats and is therefore the perfect setting for a Republican debate on economic issues. Selecting Dearborn for the sake of Reagan Democrats makes about as much sense as selecting Ann Arbor for once having been the land of Potawatomi Indian tribes: It’s technically true, but it overlooks so much that has happened since then and betrays an almost complete ignorance of the demographics and concerns of the region.
For Dearborn and Michigan, that’s today’s Republican Party.
Imran Syed is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.