Why Kerry Needs Clinton

During a recent campaign swing through Arkansas, presumptive Democratic Presidential contender John Kerry told an audience of local black leaders at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock that he welcomes former President Bill Clinton's help in the showdown with Bush. The announcement drew loud cheers from the audience. Kerry, unlike Al Gore, has leaned on Clinton, and for good reason.

If Kerry can snatch one, but better two, Southern states out of Bush's hip pocket this will give him a huge boost up. In presidential elections stretching back three decades, the South guaranteed Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr. the decisive margin of victory over their Democrat opponents. With the South's solid backing in 2000, Democratic Presidential contender Al Gore would have easily won the White House, and the Florida vote debacle would have been a meaningless sideshow. This election is no different. Polls still show that Bush will bag the overwhelming majority of the white male vote in the South this election. Clinton could be Kerry's trump card here to make sure that doesn't happen.

In the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, Clinton grabbed two Deep South States and four upper South states back from the Republicans. Though blacks voted overwhelmingly for him, white votes put him over the top in the Southern states he won. If Clinton can help deliver his home state of Arkansas, and possibly Louisiana where Democrats have run well and Kerry says he will aggressively challenge Bush, he could break the Republican's vise-like grip on the South.

On the other hand, despite his legendary appearances at black churches, crowded with legions of top black Democrats, Clinton didn't crack the iron clad Republican grip on the white South by charging the barricades on civil rights. He stole a big page from the Republican Southern Strategy playbook and talked strong defense, promised more police, and pushed the economic resuscitation of mid-America. This non-racial, centrist pitch did not threaten or alienate the white middle-class, and blunted the standard Republican rap that Democrats pander to special interests, i.e. minorities.

Clinton has not budged one inch from his strategy of benign racial neglect. In a talk last year to the right-leaning Democratic Leadership Council, he bluntly told the Democrats to follow that script, and steal the Republican's strong point issues of national security and defense from them. Kerry will almost certainly heed his words. With the arguable exceptions of Howard Dean, and occasionally John Edwards, during the Democratic primaries, Kerry and the other white contenders were virtually mute on issues such as criminal justice system reform, failing inner-city public schools, racial profiling, affirmative action, and the gaping disparities in the racially-marred drug enforcement policy.

Still, even though many blacks are scared stiff of a Bush return presidency, and Kerry is assured the ritual endorsement of black Democrat officials, his campaign has so far ignited no spark among black voters. The danger is that the strategy of say and do as little as possible about social and racial issues that worked so well for Clinton could boomerang on Kerry. If large numbers of blacks again stay away from the polls in droves, out of anger, frustration and disgust at the Democrat's perceived indifference to their interests, this could be the political kiss of death for Kerry. They make up a good percentage of the vote in the key swing states that also will do much to decide Kerry's political fate.

Here's where Clinton has more value. Polls still show that blacks regard him with reverential awe. Clinton could light the missing spark among blacks that's been missing in the Kerry campaign. He could do this by merely tossing out a few vague platitudes about racial justice, and some anti-Bush jibes in photo-op jaunts with Kerry through black neighborhoods.

Some Democrats worry that with the mountainous sexual and financial scandals that dogged Clinton during his White House days, if Kerry ties his string too tight to Clinton's kite it will do more harm than good. It will further stoke the mania among Bush's Christian fundamentalist backers, get the tongues of conservative talk radio pundits wagging and blur Kerry's own centrist message.

Other Democrats fear that with Clinton's big blockbuster autobiography due out in June, and an almost certain prime time speech at the Democratic convention that will draw tons of media attention, he could steal some of Kerry's thunder. That's not likely, Clinton is not running for any office, and poses no threat to conservative interests. He's simply a popular, marquee name. And it's that name and image that Kerry hopes will give him another edge to beat Bush.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist.

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