The politics of Baltimore: Hard truths trump hollow words

    Presidential candidates have begun to weigh in on Baltimore, and what’s most striking is the substance chasm that separates Hillary Clinton from her semi-mute Republican rivals. Gee, what a surprise.

    Actually, let’s start with President Obama, because on Monday he laid the groundwork for Hillary on Wednesday. This long passage was a master class in the telling of hard truths:

    Without making any excuse for criminal activities that take place in these communities, what we also know is that, if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty, they’ve got parents, often because of substance-abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves, can’t do right by their kids – if it’s more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead than they go to college, in communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men – communities where there is no investment, and manufacturing has been stripped away, and drugs have flooded the community, and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks – in those environments, if we think that we are just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there, without, as a nation and as a society, saying, “What can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity,” then we are not going to solve this problem. And we’ll go through the same cycle of periodic conflicts between the police and communities, and the occasional riots in the streets, and everybody will feign concern until it goes away, and then we go about our business as usual.

    Translation: Yes, there is lots of crime in those neighborhoods, and, yes, there is police abuse, but nothing will ever get better unless America faces up to the systemic socioeconomic reasons – and does something about them. Exactly right.

    Then Hillary spoke yesterday; her address was scheduled months ago, but she could easily have hewed to her customary caution. She did not. Instead, she put her empathy on the line.

    From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable. Walter Scott: shot in the back in Charleston, South Carolina. Unarmed. In debt. Terrified of spending more time in jail for child-support payments he couldn’t afford. Tamir Rice: shot in a park in Cleveland, Ohio. Unarmed, and just twelve years old. Eric Garner: choked to death after being stopped for selling cigarettes on the streets of our city. And now Freddie Gray: his spine nearly severed while in police custody. Not only as a mother and a grandmother but as a citizen, a human being, my heart breaks for these young men and their families.

    Then she got specific: Put cameras on the cops. Stop arming the cops with “weapons of war.” Enact sentencing reforms, to prevent young black males from being jailed for minor offenses (especially drugs), to keep them in their communities because “we don’t want to create another incarceration generation.” Indeed, she said, “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America….You cannot talk about smart policing and reforming the criminal-justice system if you also don’t talk about what’s needed to provide economic opportunity” – in neighborhoods that, all too often, become tinderboxes.

    Now let’s look at the Republican reactions. This won’t take as long.

    Scott Walker confined himself to a tweet: “Our prayers for restoration of peace in Baltimore.” Chris Christie sent New Jersery troopers to help restore “calm and order.” Ben Carson denounced the “uncontrolled agitators” who were mad at the Baltimore police: “If you have an unpleasant experience with a plumber, do you go out and declare a war on all plumbers?” Rand Paul said, “I came through the train on Baltimore last night; I’m glad the train didn’t stop there.” Ted Cruz called for a probe of Freddie Gray’s death and condemned the “rioting and mayhem.” Jeb Bush said of the rioters, “There has to be a commitment to the rule of law.”

    And that’s about it. What, you expected more? Republicans have virtually nothing to say about the plight of the urban underclass – last month, the GOP House passed a budget that features deep cuts to social services, including health care for the poor – and the last thing their core voters want to hear is substantive articulation about those issues.

    In fact, these remarks by Washington strategist Ed Rogers puts it perfectly:

    What are Republican presidential candidates or Republican leaders anywhere supposed to do or say about what’s happening in Baltimore? The way I see it, they have four choices:  (1) They can hide, say almost nothing and dodge questions. That’s probably tempting at this stage. (2) They can pose for a hokey picture with some African Americans from the community and talk about the need to conduct outreach to minority voters. (3) They can make a statement, using pablum buzzwords such as “unity” and “healing.” They can’t forget they are Republicans, so they will also need to throw in something about strict law enforcement. (4) They can do something different. But honestly, I don’t have a good idea of what that “something different” looks like.

    Oh, wait. Did I forget to mention that Ed Rogers is a lifelong Republican?

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