How Douglas Wilder May Rebuild the Democratic Coalition


Washington. -- The announcement by Virginia's Gov. L. Douglas Wilder that he is running for the presidency has provoked some people to declare him "nuts," a black guy on a colossal "ego trip" into a "white world."

The TV stations present, ad nauseam, black people declaring that "this country isn't ready for a black president."

My reaction is restrained by my remembrance that I thought Mr. Wilder was a pipe-dreamer when he ran for governor of Virginia in 1989. I figured the first black person to win a governorship sure wouldn't be in the conservative former cradle of the confederacy. But because of a special mess in Virginia, and because he has special skills and personal attractions, Mr. Wilder pulled off the closest thing to a political miracle we've had in my four decades of monitoring this society.

I see the country now in a greater mess domestically than Virginia was in in 1989. I note that the Democratic Party is desperate for a leader who can restore a winning part of a once-dominant coalition. I see that Mr. Wilder in less than two years has lifted Virginia out of the worst of its economic woes. He has shown that he recognizes the failures of George Bush and is not timid about assailing him.

So even though I know that Governor Wilder is the "longest of long shots," to use his words, and the "darkest of dark horses," to use mine, I am not going to embrace the conventional wisdom that the Democratic Party surely will not nominate him, and the voters absolutely will not elect him.

The Republicans have gained a near-lock on the White House by playing a cynical but shrewd game of racist politics. They have convinced millions of middle-class whites that the Democratic Party has abandoned them to give unfair preferences to blacks and other minorities and to the "lazy poor," and that Democrats are soft on crime, but hard on taxpayers.

Could it be a black candidate who erases white paranoia and re-establishes a coalition of blacks, white working people and others who once formed a powerful party?

Note the important ways in which he is different from both the ex-candidate Jesse Jackson and the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Mr. Jackson articulates the needs of the nation brilliantly, but in a way that scares the hell out of white people. Even conservative white Virginians did not perceive Mr. Wilder to be the spear-carrier for some movement of black domination. Blacks support Mr. Wilder, while showing contempt for Judge Thomas, because even in demonstrating his economic conservatism, Governor Wilder has never "sold out" on civil-rights issues such as affirmative action, as Judge Thomas has.

Republicans cannot assail Governor Wilder as a "tax and tax, spend and spend" Democrat because this black governor has wiped out a $2 billion shortfall in Virginia's $26 billion biennial budget by cutting spending rather than raising taxes.

Mr. Wilder is running against the Washington Establishment, as did Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, saying that the big boys here "make the deals, while we little people out here pay the bills."

Some saw Mr. Wilder running from race issues in 1989 so as not to create unease among white voters. This time he has come out firing at President Bush for leading an American retreat into divisive hatreds. "Instead of a healing leadership," he said of Mr. Bush, "he offers divisive rhetoric that can only result in pitting one group against another. . . . This nation has a president who is deliberately attempting to take us backward."

Governor Wilder's candidacy will draw several other Democrats out of their bunkers of intimidation-by-Bush. And he will embolden them. Thus, mercifully, he ensures us of a Democratic convention in New York next July that will not be a wake, nor a formal surrender to the GOP.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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