Blacks and the Democratic Party

Blacks and the Democratic Party

Voters felt devalued and heard no message, so many of them stayed home.


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.

Gephardt’s performance underscores the point that party leadership has been a problem–and he’s not the only one at fault. Besides the Senate bid of African-American Ron Kirk in Texas, the other high-profile campaign by an African-American was waged by Carl McCall for governor of New York. Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe angered some blacks by rejecting McCall’s bid for increased financial support from the party. Although McAuliffe’s original position was that unless McCall closed the gap with Pataki to single-digit figures, he would not provide additional resources, more funds were given late in the campaign.

Given the fact that one role of the party is to assist candidates to become competitive in critical races, this position by McAuliffe is curious, especially considering that McCall, unlike Tony Sanchez, the Democratic candidate for governor of Texas, was not a multimillionaire. McAuliffe’s logic appears to be that unless minority candidates have considerable financial resources of their own to fund their races or are already competitive, they cannot look to the party for help.

McAuliffe’s position ignores the stunning record of past victories by Democrats that would not have occurred except for the black vote, a fact that violates the calculus of reciprocity to such an extent that I believe the party should have new leadership as the 2004 election comes into view. The lack of reciprocity can also be seen in the governor’s race in Maryland, where, rather than match her Republican opponent Bob Ehrlich’s choice of a black running mate for lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend chose a white male Republican. Undoubtedly this act was the source of some of the 45,000 votes Ehrlich took from Prince George’s County, which is more than 60 percent black, in his defeat of Townsend. So the leadership problem for Democrats exists at both national and local levels.

As the dust settles from the 2002 campaign, there are no top black Democratic Party leaders in the House of Representatives; in fact, the party has not had a black minority or majority leader, caucus chair or whip in the chamber since William Gray in 1991 (who was himself the first black to become whip). To have the position of “assistant this” or “vice chairman of that” is simply not good enough, given what everyone acknowledges to be the importance of the black vote to the Democratic Party. And even at the state level, there is the embarrassing fact that the two top black officials in the nation, lieutenant governors, are both Republicans. If black Democratic leaders cannot gain such positions, then their ability to transfer their constituents’ voting power into public policy is even more severely limited.

So, there is a clear issue here of political accountability by the Democratic Party to its black constituency, but the white leaders in the party are not the only ones to blame. Black political leaders have not bargained effectively, and, as such, their politics amounts to chickens coming home to roost. For example, the 2000 presidential election in Florida witnessed clear examples of the violation of the voting rights of blacks, among others, and consequently the need for prompt action by an Attorney General in a Democratic administration. However, Janet Reno was silent, declining to place the full force of the Justice Department behind these potential violations of the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act and other laws. But why didn’t black leadership demand that Bill Clinton send her into the fray? Perhaps he knew that she was sacrificing black interests for her own future gubernatorial campaign and assisted her in that endeavor.

A substantial error here is that black leaders have succumbed to the politics of “Clintonmania,” in which Bill Clinton’s popularity is regarded as the key to black turnout. But in the places where he campaigned among blacks in the 2002 elections, Democrats lost key races. In any case, as Donna Brazile, national chair of the Voting Rights Institute of the Democratic Party, has observed, blacks are tired of the “drive by” campaigning that takes place the last two weeks of a race and does not suffice as serious campaigning in black communities.

Underlying the consent of black leaders to this treatment is the fear that if the party is pushed too far to the left, it will become uncompetitive and black interests will suffer as a result. This view, however, has contributed to a paradigm in which black leaders are reticent to push the party aggressively to dignify the interests of their constituency–a situation amounting to “appendage politics.” This paradigm should be exchanged for another, in which party constituencies fight for their basic interests and compromise only when they must. Posing a strong alternative is the only way to create bargaining situations that have the effect of pulling the party toward desired policy goals. In a larger sense, the entire party should also practice this form of leverage.

In response to the current state of affairs, blacks should seriously re-evaluate their role within the Democratic Party. They should summon the courage to confront the truth that positive outcomes from the political process for blacks, as for any other group, lie not only in their ability to vote in substantial numbers but also in that vote’s being respected in the process of party campaigning and governance. Blacks should now engage in a serious colloquy to determine an effective strategy for 2004 and beyond, one that does not regard allegiance to the Democratic Party as a given and keeps open other options.

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