Assessing Kerry's Civil Rights Commitment

Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry blasted Bush for thumbing his nose at the NAACP's invitation to speak at its annual convention. He then gave a rip-roaring, give-Bush-hell-on-civil-rights speech at the convention. Kerry made big promises that his administration would champion civil rights, economic opportunities and education for minorities. But he was preaching to the choir.

The NAACP delegates wanted and expect to hear that from a Democratic presidential standard bearer at their convention. They expect to hear that from every president and contender who has spoken before them, and that included presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000. In front of the NAACP, all candidates sound like the second coming of Martin Luther King.

But after the convention, it's a far different story. The last Democratic president who spoke out strongly on civil rights before the NAACP convention and then went on to back up his words with action was Lyndon Johnson. Usually, Democratic presidents and presidential contenders have quietly shoved civil rights issues to the back burner following the convention.

Kerry has given two strong hints that that could happen. A few days before the NAACP convention, the Democratic Platform Committee backpedaled fast from a strong plank that denounced the Iraq war and questioned the effectiveness of the war on terrorism. That has Kerry's stamp all over it; it was designed not to offend or alienate white, conservative-leaning swing voters. There was no public indication that the Democratic platform will take aggressive positions on civil rights issues, which could also alienate these voters.

A few weeks before, Kerry rushed to Arkansas to pay homage to Clinton. He promised to seek his counsel in the campaign. That counsel is to try and out-Bush Bush at every turn. Meaning, talk and act tough on national security, the war on terrorism and greater defense spending; adopt bland positions on health care and social security that appeal to the white middle-class; and say as little as possible about civil rights issues.

Democratic Leadership Council head Al From publicly congratulated Kerry for embracing Clinton's, and the DLC's political strategy. This strategy is hailed as the Holy Grail of politics that enabled Clinton to beat Bush Sr. in 1992.

This is mostly myth. Reform Party Presidential candidate Ross Perot, a conservative centrist, got nearly 20 million votes. That cost Bush Sr. as many as 160 electoral votes in 13 key Southern and swing states that either traditionally have gone Republican or where the Republicans have run strongly. Also, urban turmoil and Bush Sr.'s miserable failure to resuscitate the economy further sunk his re-election bid. Despite his charisma and considerable political skills, Clinton was no miracle worker.

No matter how much Kerry declares that he will talk to people on the right, or how many photo-ops he takes packing guns, he won't loosen Bush's iron grip on white Southern males, evangelicals and gun enthusiasts. Southern-born and bred Clinton couldn't do that. It would also be a fatal political mistake to assume that blacks fear and loathe another four years of Bush so much that they will stampede the polls to back Kerry. While blacks will again vote overwhelmingly for Kerry, and Latinos will give him the majority of their votes, it's not the percentage of these groups' votes that counts, but how many voters actually show up at the polls on Election Day.

A recent poll by Black America's Political Action Committee found that nearly one out of five blacks favor Bush's re-election, and one out of three blacks say they are unsure about Kerry's candidacy. These numbers are subject to question, since the committee is an unabashedly black conservative political group. Still if the numbers are anywhere close to accurate they are a warning sign that Kerry has a lot of hard work to do among blacks.

Kerry needs a big impassioned, turnout of blacks and Latinos to beat Bush. Blacks and Latinos make up a significant percentage of the vote in a handful of Midwest and Eastern swing states. These are the states that will decide Bush and Kerry's political fate.

In years past, a legion of Democratic presidents and presidential contenders have spoken before friendly, supportive NAACP conventions. They promised to put civil rights on the nation's front burner. Few have kept their word. If Kerry reneges on his word during the campaign, he could be the big loser.

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