Getting the Dems Back on Track with Blacks

There was a revealing moment late last year when then-Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean claimed that the Democrats, if they want to beat Bush, must court beer-guzzling white guys who wave the Confederate flag. In a debate, John Edwards shot back that as a Southerner he was offended by Dean's assumption that all Southern white guys wrapped themselves in the Confederate flag. He said he fully backed the NAACP's campaign in South Carolina to get the flag removed from the state house.

In racially reprimanding Dean, Edwards was signaling that Democrats should put civil rights back on their front burner. But since 1992 they've been scared stiff of doing just that. Then, presidential candidate Bill Clinton figured out that the way to beat Bush Sr. was to say and do as little about civil rights as possible while courting white middle-class voters. Despite his legendary appearances at black churches – crowded with legions of top black Democrats – Clinton stole a big page from the Republican Southern strategy playbook. He talked strong defense, promised more police and pushed the economic resuscitation of mid-America. This non-racial, centrist pitch did not alienate the white middle-class and blunted the standard Republican rap that Democrats pander to special interests, i.e., minorities.

But what worked well for Clinton proved disastrous for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000. He followed Clinton's political blueprint. He spent most of his campaign avoiding appearances in black communities and was mute on racial issues. Gore got away with it by playing hard on the panic that the possibility of a Bush White House stirred in many blacks. Already such avowed enemies of civil rights as justices Anton Scalia, William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas sat on the Court; the Democrats dangled the nightmarish vision of further right-wing appointments.

Though Gore got the ritual endorsement of black Democrats, civil rights leaders and the vast majority of those blacks who voted, his campaign ignited no enthusiasm among the masses of black voters. He could not hurdle the apathy or resentment many blacks felt toward the Democrats. Many stayed away from the polls. They might have provided the margin of victory for Gore in several tightly contested swing states.

Kerry would get the endorsements of black leaders and the bulk of the black vote even if Edwards were not on the ticket. But if Kerry ignores civil rights issues, or treats them as an afterthought, blacks will once again stay home on Election Day. In a tightly contested race, that would be the political kiss of death for Kerry.

Edwards potentially can ensure that blacks turn out in big numbers. But he must do more than take digs at the Confederate flag. He must use his vice presidential candidacy as a bully pulpit to speak out for affirmative action, tougher and expanded hate crimes laws, repeal of the mandatory drug laws that warehouse thousands of young blacks for mostly non-violent, non-serious crimes and attack the glaring race inequities in the death penalty and funding for mostly black and Latino schools.

Edwards risks little in aggressively championing civil rights, and going for broke for the black vote, especially in the South. There's little chance that he can break the ironclad grip that Bush has on the white Southern vote. Polls show that white Southern males are still Bush's biggest and most enthusiastic backers. Bush essentially has an unbreakable lock on white conservative voters nationwide.

Edwards has shown that his strong civil rights message can ignite passion among black voters. His willingness to push civil rights as a white Southerner played a big role in his win in the South Carolina Democratic primary. Blacks make up more than one-third of the Democratic vote in that state.

But there's a pitfall. Campaign strategists may still press Edwards to adopt the Clinton – and to an extent his boss Kerry's – strategy of benign racial neglect. He may try to out-Bush Bush by talking tough on national defense and demanding stronger anti-terrorism measures. He may confine his domestic pitch to pounding Bush on his tax cuts and his failing education initiative. That would send the message that Democrats again are prepared to abandon black interests rather than risk alienating whites.

The test for Edwards is to resist that disastrous approach and put civil rights back on the national radar screen. So far, he's the only top candidate who seems willing to do so.

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