CLEVELAND — At a moment of national suffering, politics stands largely mute. A presidential campaign that has convulsed the country for more than a year now suddenly seems small in the face of the shocks from Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas and the racial divisions they exposed again.
Through a weekend of grieving and prayers, demonstrations and arrests, politics was rightly on hold. Not in the literal sense, of course. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, out of sight, continued to weigh vice presidential choices and prepare for their respective party conventions. The Democrats debated their platform in Orlando. Republicans arrived in this city to start drafting their platform and rules ahead of their gathering, which will begin in a week.
But in other ways, politics has taken a back seat to fast-moving events that overwhelm the capacity of political leaders to act or do little more than offer familiar words. In that way, there was a sense of disconnect between the issues that again confront the entire country — the rights of all people to be treated equally and the risks every first responder is exposed to in unexpected settings — and the politicians who will be called on to try to do something about them.
President Obama was repeatedly visible, even though he was thousands of miles away in Europe. He sought to calm things down, offer perspective and ask for patience. In every forum, from the evening he landed in Poland to his departure from Spain en route back home Sunday, the president offered a message carefully balanced to apportion sympathy for all, criticism where warranted and encouragement where needed, which seemed to be everywhere.
Obama tried to tell the people of a divided nation that they are not as divided as the naysayers claim, that some of the tensions on display this past week are long-standing problems between the races and therefore are not given to easy solutions. Progress has been made but much remains to be done, he said, as he has at other moments of tension that have repeatedly punctuated his presidency. Police officers deserve the respect and support of all Americans, he said, even if uneven justice is applied to minority communities.
The question that immediately arises is: What effect will the events of the past week have on the campaign? There is no clear answer. Will a frightened country look for a strong leader to help restore law and order, as Trump said on the morning after the carnage in Dallas? Will a nation yearning to understand the moment look for someone to help lead a frank conversation about injustice and the relationship between law enforcement and the African American community, as Clinton suggested she could do?
Just as appropriate a question is: What kind of effect will the campaign have on the problem highlighted by Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights and Dallas? Trump has barely talked about these issues during the campaign. He has spoken about the plight of the inner cities and said he would attract more African American votes than a typical Republican nominee, but he generally has taken the side of law enforcement when there is conflict between law enforcement officers and minority communities.
“I am the law-and-order candidate,” Trump said Monday during a speech on veterans’ issues in Virginia Beach, Va. “Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is weak, ineffective, pandering.”
Clinton has brought attention to the mothers who have lost children to shootings, including some by police officers. She pledges compassion as well as justice. She has solid support in the African American community, and her messaging reflects that.
The rhetoric of politics in these days seems inadequate to a moment better made for clergy members or local leaders without obvious political standing, voices such as those of Dallas Police Chief David Brown or the Rev. T.D. Jakes. At these moments, the rhetoric of politics can sound stale and packaged, tested through polling and focus groups, designed to soften rough edges without necessarily grappling directly with the intractability of many problems.
Still, presidents have met rhetorical challenges when called upon. Ronald Reagan had that gift. So did Bill Clinton. George W. Bush, on the Friday after terrorists destroyed the twin towers, found it in a formal speech at the Washington National Cathedral and later with a bullhorn atop the rubble at Ground Zero.
Obama has repeatedly delivered moving and emotional speeches in times of grief and sorrow, so many by now that fresh words are fleeting. He will speak again Tuesday at an interfaith service in Dallas. Bush also will speak at the service.
It’s what comes afterward that highlights the limits of words alone. Nineteen years ago, Bill Clinton, whose bonds were deep with the black community, sought to generate a national conversation about race as perhaps only a Southern president could. His goals were to educate the country and to promote a healthy dialogue on race, while offering a presidential vision of reconciliation. The effort delivered only in small ways, as events of last week and many other weeks have reminded everyone.
Obama, the first African American president, generally spoke about race only when forced to do so as a candidate in 2008 and then gingerly during the early stages of his presidency. Lately he has been far more outspoken, offering the perspective of someone who has lived the experience of being black in the United States. The fruits of this also have been limited, although he has been clear-eyed about the limits of what any president can do in four or eight years.
Obama was asked Saturday in Poland how he hoped his legacy on issues of race would be remembered. “If my voice has been true and positive,” he said, “then my hope would be that it may not fix everything right away, but it surfaces problems, it frames them; it allows us to wrestle with these issues and try to come up with practical solutions; and that that perspective may lead to continued improvement.”
He concluded by saying: “That’s not going to happen right away, and that’s okay. We plant seeds, and somebody else maybe sits under the shade of the tree that we planted. And I’d like to think that, as best as I could, I have been true in speaking about these issues.”
In the best of those moments, presidents speak for everyone. In this campaign, no one seems able to do that. Neither of the two major candidates has found, if there is a way to find it, a message that bridges the two worlds that remain apart. They have been content to appeal to their respective bases, focused first and foremost on trying to turn out enough support to win in November. At that point, one of them will be the president-elect and the problem will be his or hers. Will the campaign have prepared the winner and the country for that challenge?