|May 23, 2007|
|Twenty-six members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have signed letters to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) urging them to reconsider their decisions to skip a debate cosponsored by the CBC Institute and Fox News.
Last month, under pressure from liberal activists, Obama, Clinton and Edwards, the front-runners in the Democratic presidential primary, announced that they would skip the debate scheduled for September because they consider Fox biased against Democrats.
Obama in particular has had a rocky relationship with Fox. His campaign froze out the conservative-leaning news network for a few weeks after it erroneously reported that Obama had received schooling at a radical madrassa — a Muslim school — during his youth in Indonesia.
Members of the Black Caucus say that by skipping the Fox debate, Obama and other candidates risk missing a chance to share their views on issues important to minority voters that are often given short shrift at other debates.
Black Caucus leaders sent the letter to the entire field of Democratic presidential candidates, but the primary targets were Obama, Clinton and Edwards.
The caucus has 43 members from 22 states, who together represent about 40 million Americans, an official with the group said. Seventeen members of the Black Caucus represent districts that are less than 50 percent African-American, said caucus Chairwoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), who argued that the issues at the debate will also be of interest to other minority constituencies, such as Hispanics.
“It’s not just a black thing,” Kilpatrick said.
Thompson said presidential debates often ignore issues that are important to minority voters.
“Nobody is talking about the disproportionate statistics that we have in this country as it relates to minority population,” Thompson said. “You can look at healthcare, you can look at education, you can look at employment, you can look at housing, you can look at lending. All those [statistics] show a very bad picture for many constituents we represent.
“So we think Democratic and Republican candidates alike should have an opportunity to say what they plan to [do to] level the playing field,” he added.
By framing their decision to skip the debate as a missed opportunity to communicate to an important Democratic constituency, caucus leaders are ratcheting up the political pressure on the Democratic front-runners.
Thompson said that the CBC Institute, not Fox, would set the debate format and select the questions to be asked. He said Fox merely will broadcast the event.
So far, liberal opinion leaders have praised the Democrats’ decision to snub Fox.
Left-leaning columnist E.J. Dionne wrote last month that Democrats were well within their rights.
“Tell me again: Why do Democrats have an obligation to participate in debates on Fox?” Dionne wrote. “I am an avid reader of conservative magazines such as National Review and the Weekly Standard. But if these two publications teamed up to sponsor a Democratic debate, would anyone accuse Edwards, Obama and Clinton of ‘blacklisting’ if the candidates said, ‘no thanks’?”
The pressure may be particularly acute for Obama, who is a member of the Black Caucus. Obama has irked fellow CBC members by failing to respond to a request made early last year that he host a fundraiser for the Black Caucus’s political action committee (PAC). Clinton received a similar invitation and quickly followed through by headlining a CBC PAC fundraiser in March of 2006.
If Obama were to change his mind and attend the debate, it would put pressure on Edwards and Clinton to follow suit. Otherwise, it might look as though they were snubbing African-American voters, an important bloc of the Democratic electorate. For instance, in South Carolina, which will hold the country’s second presidential primary, black voters are expected to make up nearly half of Democratic voters.
The 26 Black Caucus members who signed the letter wrote that they strongly support the debate sponsored by the CBC Institute and Fox. The signatories emphasized that the Black Caucus is separate and distinct from the CBC Institute, but their very action also illustrated the close affinity between the two groups. Four caucus members sit on the institute’s board: Thompson, Kilpatrick, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.).
Thompson and Kilpatrick noted that when the CBC Institute asked cable news networks to air presidential debates it hosted in 2003, only Fox responded. They said the debates drew impressive ratings.
Thompson said loyalty is a factor in the CBC Institute’s decision to stick with Fox. In total, the institute plans to host four presidential debates, two for Democratic candidates and two for Republican candidates. Fox and CNN will split the broadcasting evenly.
“Given the importance that African-Americans and others hear from you on your position on critical issues that affect their lives and the country, we urge your participation,” a Democratic source who described the letter’s conclusion said.
But the debate is not without controversy in the black political community.
“I think what we have are candidates who understand that Fox is a propaganda outlet and not an appropriate place for political discourse to be treated as news,” said James Rucker, the executive director of ColorOfChange.org, who applauded Obama, Clinton and Edwards for skipping the debate. ColorOfChange.org describes itself as an online community of 90,000 Americans dedicated to amplifying the voice of Black America.