Are you dying to hear what Hillary Clinton has to say about the events in Ferguson, MO? A lot of people seem to be. Here’s an article in Politico about the fact that she ignored a reporter’s question about it at a book signing. Here’s a CNN panel discussing her silence. Here’s a Huffington Post article on the same topic.
There’s an assumption here that deserves examination, one articulated by Al Sharpton last week. “This is now a national, central issue, and anyone running for president needs to come up with a formula, or, in my opinion, they forfeit their right to be taken seriously,” Sharpton said. “I’m amazed that we’re not hearing from leading candidates … Chris Christie or Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton.”
Raise your hand if you think that Clinton, not to mention Christie, Bush, or anybody else thinking about running for president, has something particularly profound or insightful to add, a comment that would make the millions who heard it say, “That’s fascinating — I hadn’t thought about it that way, and this really changes my perspective on the issue.” Anyone?
Obviously, we don’t want presidential candidates to just skate by without having to take a stand on important controversies. But if we’re going to say that candidates have to “weigh in” on a topic, then there ought to be a reason, beyond the simple fact that they might be running. There’s no shortage of people talking about this subject already, after all.
Here are some good reasons why we should demand that candidates talk about a particular topic. Perhaps it’s an issue they’ve been vocal about, or involved in, before. For instance, Jeb Bush wrote a book about immigration reform, so he should be asked about the current immigration controversies. Hillary Clinton worked on health care reform in the 1990s, so it’s worth knowing what she thinks about the state of Affordable Care Act implementation. Or perhaps it’s an issue that the next president will have to deal with, like the situation in Iraq and Syria. It most likely won’t be resolved in the next two years, and we should know what each candidate’s perspective on it is. Or perhaps there’s an issue of federal law, like the controversy over tax inversions, and we want to get them on record now so we can understand what actions they might take. Or perhaps they bring a unique perspective to it; as the only female (possible) candidate, Hillary Clinton can speak to issues like discrimination in the workplace in a way other candidates might not be able to.
But Ferguson doesn’t fall into any of those categories. While it has brought up the issue of the militarization of law enforcement, the most important issue at hand is the way Americans of color are treated by police all over the country. That’s a deep and widely distributed problem, and it isn’t one Congress can just pass a law to fix.
You could argue Clinton has a special obligation to comment on Ferguson because it’s of such vital importance to African-Americans, and the Clintons’ political careers have been built in no small part on their support from those voters. There’s some merit to that, but the truth is that it’s Bill Clinton who got where he did with the help of such strong support from African-Americans. In 2008, the fact that Hillary Clinton wasn’t able to hold on to them in the face of the challenge from Barack Obama was one of the main reasons she lost.
No Democratic candidate can win the party’s presidential nomination without black voters, and every Democrat with their eyes on the White House should be taking every opportunity they can to communicate to those voters that they understand their struggles and appreciate their concerns. But that’s a reason why it would be politically wise for Clinton to talk about Ferguson, not a reason why she has more of a moral obligation to do so than anyone else.
To be clear, I’m not saying Clinton shouldn’t weigh in if she has something to say. By all means, she should. But we also shouldn’t act as though we’ve been deprived of something vital if she doesn’t.