The questions at tonight’s Black and Brown Forum in Des Moines were the best at any of the presidential debates so far. I especially liked NBC correspondent Soledad O’Brien’s one about why refugees from Cuba are allowed to stay in the United States while refugees from Haiti or China are not. O’Brien’s co-moderator, Tavis Smiley of Black Entertainment Television, came up with an equally shrewd question about whether the priority of lily-white Iowa and New Hampshire in the presidential primaries is unfair to minorities. Yet another sharp question came from one of the panelists, Erik Parker of the music magazine the Source, who asked whether it was right to deprive convicted felons of the right to vote.
What was especially impressive about these questions is that they were unexpected without being obscure, trivial, or overly clever. Each was substantive, framing a significant problem in a surprising and fresh way. And each was designed to make the candidates squirm, but without being merely a trick or a trap.
In each case, the answers were revealing. Gore stumbled over O’Brien’s immigration question by trying to argue that refugees from Communist countries should be treated differently. O’Brien rightly pointed out that this answer didn’t account for China. Smiley’s question on the primaries provoked both candidates into utterly unconvincing defenses of Iowa and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status. And the question about voting rights for felons caused Bradley to say he’d reconsider whether nonviolent convicted felons deserved the right to vote. One could reasonably defend this position. The problem is that Bradley never did so before being asked about it tonight. Bradley’s answer was an attempted constituency pleaser on par with Gore’s gays-in-the-military answer from two debates ago. The difference is that where gays ought to have appreciated Gore’s effort, I’m not sure blacks support the idea of criminals’ voting any more than whites do.
Like Bradley, Gore sometimes crossed the line from deeply felt concern into pandering. In his answer to the voting felons question, Gore implied that the disproportionately high incarceration rate for African-Americans was principally the result of bias, which is preposterous. But Gore’s solicitousness expressed itself less in his specific answers than in his slightly excessive effort to bond with the audience. When he said that the Clinton administration not only talked the talk but also walked the walk on civil rights, Gore actually drew boos from the Bradley-friendly crowd for his somewhat hokey-sounding appropriation of street language.
Gore was also clumsy in the way he constantly invoked his close friend and partner Bill Clinton. For months, Gore has been speaking to largely white audiences and barely mentioning the president’s name. Tonight, in front of an audience composed of minorities and whites sympathetic to minority concerns, the vice president bragged extensively about the record of an outfit he seldom mentions: “the Clinton-Gore administration.” When Bradley zinged Gore by proposing that the vice president walk down the corridor to the Oval Office and tell Clinton to sign an executive order banning racial profiling, Gore shot right back in defense of his boss: “I don’t think President Bill Clinton needs a lecture from Bill Bradley about how to stand up and fight for African-Americans and Latinos.” This was an excellent rejoinder, but Gore will get himself into trouble very soon if he doesn’t figure out a single attitude toward Clinton and stick with it.
More persuasive was Gore’s emulation of the president’s style, which after about a thousand tries finally came off in one portion of the debate. When a doctor by the name of Paula Mahone asked both candidates about the under-representation of blacks in medical schools, Bradley responded with a routine defense of affirmative action. But Gore, who was either better prepared or better clued-in, recognized the questioner as the doctor who delivered the McCaughey septuplets.
“Dr. Mahone, I recognize you,” Gore said. “And when you performed that medical miracle, you made not only Iowa proud but the entire nation proud. And I think it is fair to say that there were countless young African-American girls and boys and boys and girls of all backgrounds who saw you on the national television screens at the very top of your profession demonstrating to one and all that there’s nothing you don’t know how to do in the field of medicine. And they thought to themselves: You know, I can do that.”
As Gore heaped praise on Dr. Mahone, he seemed truly moved, and the audience seemed moved with him. For one brief moment, you even might have thought you were listening to Bill Clinton.