Playing Base Politics


The reality of a three-way presidential race has prompted a vigorous debate within the Clinton campaign and within the Democratic Party. It was joined last week by Jesse Jackson, who believes that with Ross Perot in this race, "the arithmetic shifts." Bill Clinton can win, according to a theory promoted by Mr. Jackson and others, by running to the left and mobilizing the base Democratic vote.

This strategy is a loser; it fails mathematically and it fails morally.

Mathematically, it assumes that the left of center in America is large enough to win a three-way race.

Morally, such a strategy encourages candidates to pander and divide. Presumably, such a strategy would have had Mr. Clinton condemn hate when practiced by the likes of David Duke (as he has) and ignore it when practiced by blacks like rapper Sister Souljah (as he did not).

Let's deal with the numbers. What is the hard core left-of-center Democratic vote in America?

In 1988, Michael Dukakis won 46 percent of the vote, but of that only 65 percent told exit pollers they were firmly committed to him. That puts the Democratic base in the 30 percent range, not the 40 percent range that conventional wisdom has given the Democrats.

To understand the components of the base, you need to start with black voters. According to ABC exit polls, blacks constituted 9 percent of the electorate in 1988 and in 1984 and 8 percent in 1980.

Mobilizing black turnout is always an important part of the Democratic strategy. But because the black population is much smaller and younger than the white population, large percentage increases in turnout do not result in many votes.

For instance, if black turnout in 1988 in Mississippi had risen to 68 percent and white turnout stayed the same, Mr. Dukakis would have done better but George Bush still would have won the state by 52,000 votes. In fact, only three states -- Illinois, Louisiana and Maryland -- would have moved into the Dukakis column in 1988 had the Democrats been able to increase black turnout by nearly 30 points without also increasing white turnout.

In the rest of the rainbow, the numbers are even smaller. Hispanics, the fastest growing minority in America, counted for only 3 percent of the electorate in 1988 -- and one out of three Hispanics in 1988 voted Republican. This puts the likely Hispanic Democratic base at about 2 percent of the electorate.

Two other groups in the Democratic base -- union households and people old enough that their early political experience was in the New Deal -- are slightly more than 50 percent Democratic. Both groups constitute a decreasing share of the population and, therefore, the electorate. Michael Dukakis won most of the liberals in 1988, but moderates and conservatives outnumbered liberals 3-1.

Thus the mathematics of the Go Left strategy works only if we have a four-way, not a three-way, race -- then 30 percent is enough to win.

But the Go Left strategy contains in it a moral flaw even more serious than its mathematical one.

It is a strategy that seeks to divide and conquer, not to unify and heal. It is a strategy that would have Bill Clinton apply one set of principles to white racism and another to black racism. It is a strategy that would have him protect workers in one segment of the economy instead of adopting policies designed to produce the greatest growth for the greatest number. It is a strategy that would have him pit government against taxpayer, old against young.

There is only one moral way to run for president, and that is to try to be the leader of everyone. Sometimes that means scolding blacks as well as whites for racism and intolerance; sometimes that means attacking Wall Street as well as welfare mothers for their lack of personal responsibility.

When he is at his best, Bill Clinton does just that.

Elaine Ciulla Kamarck is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. She wrote this commentary for Newsday.

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