If Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana fails to win re-election in her December 7 runoff, one of the contributing factors could be a falloff in African-American turnout that speaks to problems deep within the Democratic Party. For some time now, it has been apparent that the conservative and liberal wings of the party are on a collision course and that it was just a matter of time before the party’s coherence was challenged by this fact. That reality–combined with party signals that continue to devalue the black base–means that the relationship between blacks and the party may be in serious danger of a showdown.
Black voter turnout this year was slightly down from 1998 levels, but Republican victories were actually fueled by the higher turnout of white Republican base voters in those targeted districts where George Bush campaigned for Republican candidates. Nevertheless, the fact that black turnout was lower affected races in states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and New York, in all of which the black voting-age population was large.
The debate over the reasons for this slight but critical decline has focused on inadequate party leadership as well as black disaffection over the lack of attention by party leaders to black concerns. There is much truth in the conventional wisdom that there was no clear and distinctive party message regarding current problems such as the potential war against Iraq, homeland security, the slide in the economy and prescription drug benefits for seniors. Moreover, Bush successfully co-opted some Democratic issues, as revealed in polls showing that for the first time Republicans were trusted more than Democrats on one of their bread-and-butter issues–education. And Bush was able to turn his role as protector of American security into a powerful motivator for his constituency to vote.
In this context, black voters needed a strong and sympathetic message from the party on issues, but the message to them was either nonexistent or confused. Al Gore won the popular vote in the 2000 election owing to what pollster Stan Greenberg suggests was a receptive chord struck in the public by a populist message campaign. Gore championed affirmative action, railed at tax cuts for the wealthy and challenged the gouging of Americans by oil companies charging high prices. But Democrats now seem afraid of populism and afraid to fight for liberal positions on issues.
What we find instead is a set of attitudes within the party that cause blacks to feel that their presence and issues are unwelcome. After the losses by Democrats in both 1994 and 2002, the Democratic Leadership Council argued that the party leadership had forsaken suburban whites, tax-reduction-oriented policies and–added this time–loyalty to the President on national security. In any case, I believe that the triumph of the DLC, whose membership now boasts the effective leadership of the party, including a number of black Democrats such as Representatives Harold Ford Jr., Juanita Millender-McDonald and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, has resulted in the current situation, in which rank-and-file Democrats cannot see a difference between the parties on many issues. Generally, black legislators have been disinclined to join the New Democrat Coalition of legislators founded by the DLC. But the addition of a few more is possible because of 2002 victories by more conservative young Democrats, including Denise Majette of Georgia and Artur Davis of Alabama.
An example of the DLC logic can be found in a speech presenting an economic plan by House minority leader Dick Gephardt shortly before the election. While a Zogby poll indicated that Americans trusted Democrats more than Republicans in handling the economy, Gephardt wasted this political capital by presenting a set of proposals roughly similar to those that had been sought by Bush, including money for tax cuts, protecting state infrastructure from terrorism, the extension of healthcare benefits for the recently unemployed and school construction. These proposals and others by Democrats have largely abdicated real urban policy in favor of the less antagonistic focus on schools, but the top issues for blacks in the campaign were the economy and employment–not surprising, given Bureau of Labor Statistics figures indicating that 134,000 blacks lost jobs between October 2001 and October 2002, and more than 23 percent of black youth aged 16-19 were unemployed.