Supreme Court decision secretly pleases Democrats


WASHINGTON -- Democrats from President Clinton down are following the politically correct line in criticizing the Supreme Court's decision invalidating congressional districts drawn to increase black representation in Congress.

The president called the decision "a setback in the struggle to ensure that all Americans participate fully in the electoral process," and blacks in Congress were predictably outraged by the decision that might break their hold on some of their seats an election or two in the future.

But privately, Democratic strategists are overjoyed because they see the prospect of re-electing not just blacks but white Democrats in some districts where a few more black votes might have made the difference.

The operative question, however, is whether it may not be too late for the Democrats to reverse the trend toward conservative Republicanism all across the South.

The situation in Alabama is a case in point.

In 1991, the overwhelmingly black 7th District was created in response to a federal court order, and an African-American Democrat, Earl Hilliard, was elected to represent it.

But the black proportion of the voting-age population in the neighboring 6th District was slashed from about 30 percent to about 8 percent of the vote -- enough to doom Democratic incumbent Ben Erdreich when he sought re-election in 1992.

And in the 2nd District another Democrat, George Wallace Jr., lost a House race narrowly enough so that he might have survived if the district had not suffered a similar loss of black voters.

The 7th is not a district drawn in some outlandish shape to achieve its purpose, so it is impossible to forecast how the courts may view any challenge to it growing out of the decision in the Georgia case.

But the district was extended into both Birmingham and Montgomery to assure a heavy black majority in its electorate.

So there is some reason for Alabama Democrats to believe that a less-black district might remain relatively safe for Hilliard while giving them at least a chance of electing other Democrats, probably white, in the other two districts.

The problem for the Democrats in Alabama and elsewhere in the South, nonetheless, is that the time may have passed when they can nominate a relatively moderate candidate and elect him with a biracial coalition.

There are a few districts scattered around the South in which it seems possible because the white population includes either a large number of union members still predominantly Democratic or a heavy population of academics with liberal political views.

But the hard truth is that the Democratic Party has become increasingly identified as "the black party" in some Southern states that have canted sharply to Republicans in recent years.

That is clearly true in South Carolina, Mississippi and probably Alabama, and it may be true to a lesser extent in Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana as well.

There is some obvious irony in the fact that a Southern president, Clinton, has contributed to this movement.

He carried five Southern states in 1992 -- Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky -- but would be favored in 1996 only in Arkansas.

And the reason is that white males in the region have reacted so angrily against what they see as a liberal administration that betrayed their expectations.

In many Southern congressional districts last fall, Clinton's approval rating among white males regularly ran below 20 percent.

Post-election polls showed that this view of Clinton translated into a rejection of the entire Democratic establishment in Washington, which in turn led to the Republican landslide.

And more recent opinion surveys have shown no change in that attitude.

At this point, there is no way to know how the courts finally will define the "compelling interest" standard set by the Supreme Court under which a state would be allowed to draw districts solely to provide more black representation.

At the moment, however, the Democrats are privately elated -- although political correctness requires them to express just the opposite view publicly.

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