ATLANTA (AP) — The police shooting and death of Michael Brown has gripped the nation amid clashes between protesters and the police in suburban St. Louis. But for most of those who want to lead the nation, there's little to gain in an election year by taking a stand or proposing new policy.
Instead, a group of potential 2016 presidential candidates are preserving their electoral prospects and retreating into safe rhetorical territory by saying very little, if anything at all.
Amid tensions over Brown's the death, Democrats and Republicans alike have been reluctant to take sides, draw any conclusions ahead of an investigation or connect the case to specific policy changes.
"As policymakers, I think we should wait and just be respectful of the community and the family before trying to tack our issue onto this tragedy," said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has been promoting a new book as the protests have unfolded.
For Republicans, who have struggled to win support among black voters for more than a half-century, quickly siding with law enforcement carries risk amid anger over the death of the unarmed, black 18-year-old by the hand of a white police officer.
Democrats, meanwhile, have watched as President Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, has sought to strike an appropriate tone, on one hand urging the public to remain calm in Ferguson and voicing the need for law and order while pointing to the case as another example of injustice felt by many African-Americans.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been vacationing in New York's Hamptons, hasn't publicly addressed the Ferguson case, nor has Vice President Joe Biden, who was vacationing when the shooting occurred.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was asked about the Ferguson case during a recent town hall meeting and cautioned against politicizing it. "None of us quite know yet exactly what happened in Ferguson," said Christie, a former federal prosecutor, on Tuesday. "I've been urging people not to prejudge anything here."
Charlton McIlwain, a New York University professor who has studied race in U.S. politics, said many political leaders see little upside to discussing the racially charged incident at length. He said the portrayal of Brown and the police officer as either a hero or villain — at this stage — makes it difficult to take sides.
Clinton "like Christie and some of the others, simply don't see anything to gain from it," he said.
Civil rights leaders have urged future presidential candidates to address the unrest — most notably the Rev. Al Sharpton, who told participants at a rally last weekend that potential candidates like Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush shouldn't "get laryngitis on this issue."
"Nobody can go to the White House unless they stop by our house and talk about policing," Sharpton said.
The exception has been Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has urged fellow Republicans to actively seek out African-American support. He wrote in Time that the incident resembled a war and showed the need to demilitarize police departments. He wrote the combination of a military mode with the erosion of civil liberties has led many black Americans to feel that they are being unfairly targeted.
"Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention," Paul wrote.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, considered by some Democrats as a future presidential candidate, also offered candor, telling reporters in Boston on Wednesday that he was "sick of unarmed black men being shot by police. I'm sick of the lawlessness on the streets. I think everybody's tired of it."
In Atlanta, the Democratic National Committee plans to consider a resolution promoting community policing following the Ferguson case in its summer meeting this weekend. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights leader, said in an interview that "people have been almost shocked over what happened. A lot of people don't know how to respond."
Asked why Democrats like Clinton and Biden haven't discussed it yet, Lewis said, "maybe they felt that the nation should speak with maybe one voice, and that should be the president."
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Washington and Jill Colvin in Newark, N.J., contributed to this report.
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