Is This What Political Diversity Looks Like?

The 2016 Republican presidential field looks more diverse than it did in 2012, but is it? (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images File Photo)

In the 2008 presidential contest, a glance at the Democratic and Republican debate lineup was all it took to tell the story. On the Republican stage, there were recognizable faces – Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani – mixed in with Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, etc.  

But it still came down to a row of white guys in dark suits, white shirts and red or blue ties. You needed a visual crib sheet to stay organized.  

The Democrats, on the other hand and as the party could and did boast, looked like America: Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, John Edwards, Joe Biden, history-maker Barack Obama and the rest. There was variety, all right.  

For 2016, it’s Republicans who can, and do, point to their diverse field of candidates, with Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, along with Donald Trump and the crowd on the main stage, plus more in the pre-show. Check off race, gender, age and profession, with a surgeon and business people mixing it up with the officeholders. Jeb Bush, he of the political family pedigree, is the outsider as measured by the polls.  

The Democratic stage is the one looking a little lonely and monochromatic, with far fewer candidates to choose from, though front-runner Hillary Clinton would make news as a pioneer if she became her party’s nominee.  

So, have the tables turned? Well, depends on how you define diversity. The reasoning is, more voices will offer different viewpoints, ones not traditionally listened to or respected. And, of course, those voices might bring more voters into your party – under “the big tent.” That certainly was the Republican plan, as laid out in the Growth and Opportunity Project following the 2012 election, when Romney handily won the white vote but lost the minorities who are a growing share of the electorate.  

At a Republican National Committee meeting in Charlotte, N.C., following that election, Washington insider Ari Fleischer said : “Republicans cannot scare people and expect to win. Republicans have to invite people and include people and that’s how you win. Instead, I think in too many places, black Americans and Hispanic communities and gay Americans -- they just think it’s a party that just doesn’t care.”  

Does diversity from the outside in automatically bring that difference? While the 2016 GOP hopefuls on the debate stage are as diverse as America, the views don’t veer too far from the party’s 2008 and 2012 message, and certainly have taken a step back from the goals in the party’s post-election postmortem.  

Though Cruz and Rubio are both children of Cuban refugees, they fell into the conservative camp on immigration in the last GOP debate, with Cruz attacking Rubio as not tough enough. Rubio’s campaign, however, has examined past actions from Cruz to say he isn’t as ideologically pure as he claims. Trump’s message on immigration and his pledge to build a wall on the country’s southern border and ban Muslim refugees now form the party’s calling card.  

While Obama, the country’s first African-American president, is a Democrat, the only black candidate this year, Dr. Ben Carson, takes his place on the Republican stage, though he is becoming less of a factor. He has long been admired for his medical accomplishments despite a challenging childhood, especially by many African-Americans who knew of him before others joined the fan club (Cuba Gooding Jr. played him in the movie "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story" ). But when he was asked about the issue of policing in minority communities at a criminal justice forum at a historically black university in South Carolina last month, he characterized  any problems between law enforcement and communities they serve as isolated events, to some audience pushback.  

Carson, the lone Republican at the forum, did attend along with Democrats Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley to talk about issues that aren’t high on the GOP agenda, despite videos that have many across the country questioning police tactics and asking for accountability.  

Among Democrats, there is disagreement, particularly on foreign policy and intervention in their last debate. But on issues such as income inequality and gun control, differences are mainly over who is most committed to party policy. On the contentious issue of abortion, a careful Clinton has still failed on occasion to satisfy opposite sides of the debate. Her 2005 speech to find “common ground” toward a goal to prevent unwanted pregnancies called abortion a “sad, even tragic choice to many, many women,” and was greeted with skepticism from pro-life and pro-choice activists.  

In the current campaign, views on Planned Parenthood sharply divide Clinton and Fiorina, the two women in the race.  

There are differences among the candidates, of course, both within and between parties. But party will undoubtedly and ultimately rule. The chance that you’ll see another Colin Powell or Joe Lieberman is slim. In the 2008 and 2012 race, the self-described “moderate” Republican Powell, who had served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, crossed parties to endorse Obama.  

And in 2008, the Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Lieberman endorsed McCain for president.  

It can be seen as a positive that gender, race and other demographic qualities do not define an individual’s position on a number of issues. But if the goal is a big tent that embraces variety, it starts with accepting the differences that reside within individuals – forged in different life experiences and worldviews -- instead of demanding a litmus test that eliminates those for whom compromise is not a dirty word. Over the holiday season, discussions across many dinner tables – even after the second cup of eggnog -- will be far more nuanced than anything you might hear from either party.  

Of course, nothing will eliminate citizens and politicians from disagreements over definitions of race, faith, patriotism and more, ones that have never stopped but only varied in volume since America’s beginning. And in an increasingly hardened political landscape with high stakes and little room for error, few will step apart from the crowd and risk anger from base voters.  

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, provided some of the sharpest criticism of his party’s current front-runner, Donald Trump.  

Last week, he dropped out of the race.  

Correction 1:16 p.m. A previous version of this post misspelled Marco Rubio's name.  

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