Just How Small is the Republicans' Tent?

If my memory serves me right, back in 1980, just weeks before the November presidential election, Ronald Reagan went on a campaign swing to Harlem. Right, Harlem. New York City. To campaign among black voters.

He wasn’t going to win New York. He wasn’t going to win many black votes. So what was he thinking? Clearly, he was thinking several things. First, it was the right thing to do — to show interest in, and compassion for, African-Americans. Second, he knew that suburban white voters were concerned about whether he was intolerant, too far right, incapable of bringing people together. Third, he wanted to expand the Republican tent, to bring more people into the party, to win over independents and disaffected Democrats.

Ronald Reagan’s decision to go to New York was brilliant.

The decisions of the key Republican candidates for president to skip not only the debate hosted by Tavis Smiley but also the Univision debate focusing on Hispanic issues were all bonehead moves.

My friend, Pat Buchanan, contends that they had nothing to gain in a Republican primary season by going to those debates and fielding tough questions from audiences that matter little to their base. I understand his political point, but I do think the message the candidates are sending nationwide is all wrong. And judging from the criticism from many within their own party, the Republican contenders made a big mistake.

It is great for us Democrats — Republicans are making a concerted effort to shrink the political tent! It was absolutely critical, as former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman points out, for George Bush to expand his percentage of the black vote in Ohio from 8 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2004. It is clearly important to reach out to the growing Hispanic constituency. And of critical concern are those independents and white suburban voters who are angered by the main presidential candidates' snubbing of minorities and their issues. Do they lack compassion for, and do they not care about the issues and concerns of, all Americans?

Amazing. And for those who think this all goes away and gets forgotten, think again. We still remember Ronald Reagan reaching out in 1980.