Archive for Thursday, July 31, 2003

Courting black votes important to Bush

July 31, 2003


— This prediction involves almost no risk: George W. Bush will not win the black vote when he runs for re-election next year. Let me go further, also without substantial risk: Bush won't even get as big a chunk of the black vote as Gerald Ford captured in 1976.

That's a statement that almost doesn't require an explanation. But here's a question that does require an explanation: Given that, why on Earth did the president fly to Pittsburgh on Monday to speak to the National Urban League?

The answer tells us a lot about the president, his handlers, the black vote and the nation. It tells us about the multiple dimensions in which politics are conducted in the country today. It tells us, too, about the difference in the way George Bush looks at himself (natural conciliator) and the way his critics look at him (cynical polarizer).

On the surface, Bush's remarks here this week were unremarkable, a pastiche of economics, social policy and the inevitable reference to terrorism, war and sacrifice. Many of his themes were hardy perennials. Much of his rhetoric was familiar.

But there were telling subtleties in his comments. Speaking before a group that prides itself as a service organization as much as a special-interest group, Bush began his remarks by thanking his audience "for your service to your fellow Americans." Nice touch. He spoke of Pittsburgh's role as a station on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War and saluted the local Urban League's protests against area merchants who refused to hire black workers. In an earlier America, many of those business leaders would have been Bush's natural constituency.

Then he made a comment that could just as easily have been made by any other speaker at this week's conference: "Our nation has come a long way, and we have a long way to go." Not your standard comment of complacency. He even saluted the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who, you will see if you stick with me a few paragraphs longer, is not exactly a kept man in the Bush White House. Hard to imagine Richard Nixon in his prime doing something like that. Ronald Reagan, either. All this cost the president nothing; it is the political equivalent of good manners. But it is not without meaning, either.

It shows that Bush is willing to use the bully pulpit in the same way that Bill Clinton used it on his best days, to argue that the virtue of diversity is beyond debate -- a notion that was not part of the American consensus even a dozen years ago -- and that the struggle for a just society is not over. Neither man -- not Bush, not Clinton -- will find comfort in that truth.

Neither did Jackson, who has run for president twice and who regards himself as the trustee of American justice -- and of political justice. "There's an ideological line the administration has drawn," Jackson said in a conversation moments before he and Bush had their first sustained meeting. "On this side of the line there's big job losses and the number of people in jail rising. Now he comes to talk to us and not to talk with us. ... He's building walls, not bridges."

Neither, in fact, did a parade of Democratic presidential candidates, for whom the black vote matters more than it does to Bush. "This is a president who has done nothing but harm the minority community," former Gov. Howard Denan of Vermont said in an interview. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a Democratic presidential candidate, added: "He can talk the talk, but he isn't walking the walk." Many of the delegates to this week's conference here agreed. "The Republicans just haven't appealed to blacks over the years, no matter what they say," said David Carr, the finance director for the Greater Washington Urban League.

That's true. But that's not why Bush came to Pittsburgh.

While Bush surely recognizes the limits of his appeal to black, he also is acutely aware of the sensibilities of moderate white voters. Few of them belong to the National Urban League, though Marc Morial, the group's new president, is careful to specify that his organization is composed of both blacks and whites. But the important thing here is that in the year 2003, moderate white voters want to hear their president, whether he be Republican or Democrat, speak in an inclusive way. Moderate white voters like to see their president speak before predominantly black audiences. Moderate white voters like the notion of a diverse society.

The Republicans' prospects among black voters remain close to hopeless. Dwight Eisenhower captured more than a third of the black vote in 1956, a fact that can be explained by the general's success in World War II. Nixon came close to Eisenhower's achievement in 1960, but by 1964 the modern political world was being born. That was the year Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the great sentinel of segregation, enrolled in the GOP. The party's nominee that year, Barry Goldwater, won 6 percent of the nonwhite vote.

Bush took 9 percent of the black vote in 2000. That's about half of what Ford won in 1976, when he ran against a Democratic governor of Georgia with a strong civil-rights record. It's probably what Bush will win in 2004. But presidents today have to seek the black vote even if they have no expectation of winning it. American politics demands it. And that is the most important story to come out of the president's visit to Pittsburgh this week. It may well also be the most uplifting story of the week.

David Shribman is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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