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How Will Republicans Use Cleveland?

Their first debate and convention can be launching pads for a new GOP platform on poverty. But they'll likely just scapegoat the troubled city.

Ty Wright / Getty Images

Cleveland, where Fox News will host Thursday's Republican primary debate, is a city used to being ignored until someone finds it useful. Too often, this is as the punch line of a stale joke about our river that caught fire, our temperamental weather, or our long list of sports heartbreaks. As a proud native, I typically like to throw all the worst stuff out first, much like Rabbit did in the famous 8 Mile rap battle before he concluded, “Here, tell these people something they don’t know about me.” But sadly, the list keeps growing, and more difficult to effectively rebut.

Principal on that list is my hometown’s corrupt police force, so bad that it has provoked several reprimands from the Justice Department. The department's physical and psychological wreckage includes the police killings of Tanisha Anderson and Tamir Rice last November; a billboard campaign in Cleveland is currently elevating their cases, along with that of John Crawford III, another Ohio victim of police violence in 2014. There are the shameful efforts to suppress the votes of people who tend to have a lot of melanin and don't vote Republican. We also learned late last year that more than half of Cleveland’s children live in poverty, the second-highest rate of any U.S. municipality. The entire state isn’t doing much better: per the Plain Dealer, the annual KIDS COUNT report indicated two weeks ago that child poverty in Ohio has grown to 23 percent. A new study from the Center for American Progress Action Fund shows that the median income in Ohio is lower than it was three decades ago, and that only three states have been worse in that time. In a separate brief, CAP notes that the state's overall economic gains have disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Ohioans. 

Will any of this come up on Thursday night? After all, Ohio will have a representative on the stage: Governor John Kasich. Fox News rigged its own poll-driven formula, as MSNBC's (and my former boss) Rachel Maddow demonstrated Tuesday night, to exclude Rick Perry in favor of the equally low-polling Kasich. It might have been rude, after all, to exclude the governor of the state in which not only the debate was taking place, but also the party’s nominating convention will be staged next year.

As such, I doubt that the Fox moderators or Kasich’s opponents will seek to embarrass him. After all, it serves the party well to have a supposed “moderate” in the race to defray the madness that pervades their field. As the tenth out of 10 candidates to make the cut, Kasich likely won’t draw too much fire, anyway. And if any of Ohio’s negatives do come up, I suspect that they’ll be blamed on liberal leadership in cities like Cleveland, whose mayor is a Democrat and whose county, Cuyahoga, has been the most heavily Democratic county in Ohio in the last four presidential elections. If that seems like a cynical attack, Google “Detroit Baltimore liberal,” and read the links that pop up. Downtrodden cities with Democratic mayors are depicted as if they somehow operate independently of the effects of conservative state and national governance, and instead signify the ultimate failure of liberalism. 

More likely, Cleveland will be used by the candidates as a metaphor for Republican resurgence. You could see that swimming in the GOP's collective consciousness when the party picked it for its convention. “We couldn’t be more excited. I think that it’s a city that’s on the rise,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus said a year ago. “If you haven’t been to Cleveland lately, it’s a real surprise how beautiful it is down by that lake.” The city will surely show off the new downtown developments during the convention, including a renovated Public Square at its center. Even if the Republican Party won't want to have the areas of Cleveland plagued by poverty and violence televised during either event, they cannot hope to be taken seriously if they don’t talk about those issues in a way that isn’t about scapegoating liberals.

After all, the Cuyahoga County GOP chair recently told the Washington Post that he believes the party can win every vote in the Cleveland area, presumably including the majority-black population within its borders. That same report noted that Kasich himself won Cuyahoga last November by focusing on issues of importance to black communities, and convened a task force to review law enforcement conduct after Rice's death. I'm not a fan of his overall policies, and condemn the ways in which his administration has limited certain Ohioans' access to the ballot. But perhaps on Thursday night, Kasich can represent Ohio well and show his fellow GOP candidates how to be a constructive part of the national conversation on racial equality and criminal justice.