President Obama and former presidents Carter and Clinton, along with numerous other figures, spoke during Wednesday's series of speeches honoring the 50th anniversary of one of the most pivotal moments in the American black civil rights movement. All three delivered heartfelt and uplifting remarks to a crowd eager to hear them, acting much as current and former presidents should in marking important events in the nation’s history.
For a brief time, it was like Republicans don’t exist.
In listening to them speak, and in seeing these three presidents and First Lady Obama walk up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, there was almost the impression that these three men were America’s last three presidents chronologically, or that maybe only Democrats have been in the Oval Office since 1963.
This is because in all of Wednesday's festivities and events marking the anniversary of the original March on Washington, no major Republican leaders spoke. Why is that?
For a political party in danger of falling very nearly within the margin of error in the percentage of black votes it receives in presidential elections, it’s easy to think that the Republican Party would seize on this chance to share in a moment of national commemoration and remind people of the role the party has played in civil rights during the past five decades and earlier. In his “I Have A Dream” speech from the original 1963 march, Martin Luther King's goal was to inspire Americans to do much more to ensure economic opportunity for all American citizens, regardless of skin color or ethnic origin. This is a message Republicans should be happy to embrace because of its colorblind message of fairness and equal opportunity in approaching economic issues.
As Roll Call details, a number of conservative leaders were invited to appear and speak. Both living former Republican presidents were invited. Speaker of the House John Boehner was invited. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was invited. All were unavailable.
This is a major misstep for the GOP.
Presumably, other Republicans were asked to take part and, presumably, those mentioned above tried earnestly to find someone who could attend.
It’s reasonable to conclude one reason no Republican went to speak was that the day’s events might bring up slightly awkward or off-putting topics for most members of today’s GOP — like how gay rights kept being mentioned as an extension of the black civil rights movement, or how the voter ID laws going into place in various states were continually slammed.
These are topics Republicans are sometimes hesitant to talk about internally, much less discuss on the National Mall in front of the world. Exactly how to untangle the honoring of civil rights leaders and the advancement of black rights from the promotion of progressive causes is something the GOP has yet to figure out.
It’s also reasonable to turn down public speaking engagement outdoors citing health reasons, as in the case of both presidents Bush.
Still, was there not a single GOP leader who could have gone to speak for their party?
House Republicans, 2016 presidential hopefuls, governors, writers, and the Republican Party as an organization seeking to re-brand itself after losing successive presidential contests missed an opportunity to do some serious work on shedding Republicans’ image as white, prosperous, older men fearful of any kind of change.
This is precisely the kind of venue a re-energized Republican Party would have sought. Instead, a small gathering was held earlier in the week and the GOP intentionally isolated itself from everyone else marking the occasion. Small events do not signify boldness. Those gathered at the RNC’s 50th anniversary event may have been quite sincere, but the public did not watch that event.
Instead of seeing the leaders of both parties speak sincerely on Wednesday on the urgent need for economic opportunity for all, personal responsibility to participate in politics and society, and individual fairness before the law, America saw only Democrats standing on the steps in front of Abraham Lincoln.
Instead of seeing that advancing the cause of civil rights is not only an issue for liberals to talk about and that conservatives may claim a number of civil rights leaders as their own, America saw itself reflected solely through Democratic eyes.