Why the likely 2016 candidates for president are holding their tongues on Ferguson

August 19

A protestor in Ferguson. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A quick summary of what the likely 2016 candidates have said in response to the unrest in Ferguson, as of Tuesday morning.

The first four of those were last week. And that about brings us up to speed.

Except this, from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), from a "Fox and Friends" appearance on Tuesday morning. "The first thing I do is don't try to capitalize on this tragedy with your own policy initiatives," he said, as noted by Talking Points Memo. "Don't try to link some prejudged conclusion on what's happening on the ground right now." It is local authorities who should take the lead, and trying to "graft my policy initiatives or my preferences onto this tragedy" is "disrespectful."

With that statement, Ryan does two things. First, he gets to critique Rand Paul, whose consistently good poll numbers have made the Kentucky Senator a big target among the other Republican contenders. And second, he doesn't have to say anything about Ferguson.

For the Republicans, there's not a lot of value in addressing Ferguson. As polling from Pew Research released on Monday indicates, white Americans are much less likely to see Ferguson in terms of the sort of systemic racial tensions that O'Malley highlights. But for Republicans, the numbers are even more stark. While 44 percent of the country (and 37 percent of whites) think that the Michael Brown case "raises important issues about race," only 22 percent of Republicans do -- and 61 percent think race is getting too much attention in the story. With the Republican primaries rapidly approaching, the Paul strategy of speaking out is -- or at least feels -- riskier than abstaining from comment.

Last week, Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) offered a more nuanced version of Ryan's abstention. In response to a question from New Jersey Public Radio, Christie defended the police. "We have millions of dedicated men and women who are police officers across this country, who work in grave danger every day, who try to make sure they protect innocent people across the country," he said. "So I'm not going to get into this game of generalizing and characterizing people in that way. ... [I]f there are people who need to be held accountable I'm confident they will be." Given the political strength of law enforcement, this is a savvy move -- though one that is probably to be expected from a former federal prosecutor.

Which brings us to that other 2016 candidate. Despite calls from the left (and goading from the right), Hillary Clinton has remained silent on the topic. As we noted on Monday, Obama hasn't said much either, but he is handcuffed in a way that Clinton is not. "For Obama, the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president," wrote Vox's Ezra Klein in describing the dual limitations that Obama now sees: his words carry new legal weight, and his words -- particularly on race -- immediately fall into existing trenches of political polarity. Obama's race speech from the 2008 campaign was a remarkable rhetorical moment -- and one that is impossible in 2014.

But Clinton is a (pseudo-)candidate! Why can't she speak out? One possibility: She's already running as a general election candidate. When we mentioned Martin O'Malley above, you recognized the name because you read lengthy political blog posts about upcoming presidential elections. Most Americans don't, and have no idea who O'Malley is. Hillary Clinton doesn't yet face any real challenge from within the Democratic Party, meaning that there's little political need to stake out progressive positions, like analyzing the racial tensions that underlie what happened in Ferguson. Obama's 2008 race speech, remember, came because he was trying to put the Jeremiah Wright controversy to rest. It arose from that tension. Clinton's campaign is anything but tense at the moment.

The unrest in Ferguson is ten days old, but it still feels new. That means potential 2016 candidates will have more opportunities to speak out; it seems hard to believe that Clinton will not say anything of substance on the issue. But for now, she, like everyone else in America, hopes the immediate tension and violence on the streets of Missouri evaporates ASAP.

This post has been updated with Walker's comments.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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