Update, 8:15 pm: Late Friday afternoon, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) announced he would travel to Selma to commemorate the anniversary.
The eyes of the political world will be on Selma, Ala., tomorrow as President Obama will be in town to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches that began there -- and drew the attention of the country to its racial divide. Know who won't be in attendance? Anyone from the House Republican leadership.
None of the top leaders — House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy or Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was once thought likely to attend to atone for reports that he once spoke before a white supremacist group — will be in Selma for the three-day event that commemorates the 1965 march and the violence that protesters faced at the hands of white police officers. A number of rank-and-file Republicans have been aggressively lobbying their colleagues to attend, and several black lawmakers concurred.
It's hard to overstate what a dumb decision this is for a party desperate to show that it is comprised of and open to far more people than just old white men. "We do dumb real well," said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. "It is astounding to me that whether it is supporting the continuation of the Voting Rights Act or commemorating a pivotal part of American Civil Rights history [Selma], Republican leadership prefers to sit on the sidelines."
"Hey Republican leadership, get your ass down there," former Florida Republican congressman Joe Scarborough said on "Morning Joe" Friday morning. "Get down there. This is not hard. Don't golf. Don't raise money."
Politics is in part -- and I would argue, in large part -- about symbolism. Not sending a top Republican leader to Selma on Saturday suggests Republicans don't get that. Particularly in the wake of the revelations about Scalise speaking to a group affiliated with former KKK grand dragon David Duke. If ever there was a time to say, "We're here because we get how important this is to the country," it's now for Republicans.
(Republican congressional sources note that a bill co-sponsored by Alabama GOP Rep. Martha Roby awarding the marchers the Congressional Gold Medal passed the chamber earlier this week. "Speaker Boehner was proud when the House passed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the civil rights marchers in Selma 50 years ago, and will be proud to welcome them to a ceremony in the Capitol to bestow this honor," said spokesman Michael Steel. Also worth noting: Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is in Selma today and former President George W. Bush will be there tomorrow for the ceremony.)
No, Scalise or John Boehner standing with President Obama and 100 or so other members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- isn't going to fundamentally alter the politics of the black vote in 2016. The Republican presidential candidate hasn't won more than 11 percent among African Americans in more than a decade, and it's hard to imagine that changing drastically over the next 20 months.
But, that's not the point. This isn't about a single election or a single vote. Standing together to mark a moment when the country was riven by racism but emerged from it to be a stronger, better place is simply the right thing to do. And, if that's not compelling enough a reason, Steele makes the key political point: "If our leadership can't stand with the black community in Selma, why would they believe we will stand with them on anything?" Sometimes in politics, just being there is the key. Showing up says a lot more than a statement sent by your press secretary.
Especially at a time when Ferguson -- among other incidents -- has catapulted concerns about racism to 25-year highs, symbolism matters. Republican leaders should be savvy enough to grasp that fact and get someone to Selma on Saturday.