CHICAGO -- California Congresswoman Maxine Waters was holding court at the Democratic convention this week, railing against the welfare reform bill President Clinton recently signed -- but in oddly measured tones.
"I guess that something has happened to Maxine Waters," the liberal Democrat joked about her uncharacteristic restraint. "It's not that angry black woman from Los Angeles."
What has happened is that she and other African-American leaders at the convention in Chicago have been doing a delicate dance all week. They are trying to express their extreme disappointment with Clinton for having signed a bill they deplore, but not in sharp enough terms to discourage African-Americans, a core Democratic constituency, from voting for the president and risk contributing to his defeat.
"What is the alternative?" the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson asked in his speech to the convention Tuesday night, putting a fine point on the dilemma facing many liberal Democrats and African-Americans.
The "absence of our enthusiasm," Jackson told the crowd, will deliver a Republican White House combined with a conservative Congress as led by Newt Gingrich in the House and Trent Lott in the Senate, and such conservative Supreme Court justices as Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
"We deserve better than that," he said.
By most measures, Clinton is popular among black voters. A survey by David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, found that, of eight leaders, including African-Americans such as Jackson and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, Clinton was the most popular, receiving a favorable to unfavorable rating of 88 percent to 9 percent.
But others say enthusiasm for Clinton is tepid. He received 82 percent of the black vote in 1992, substantial support but the lowest percentage any Democratic presidential nominee has received since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
"We're supporting Clinton. However, it becomes one of those 'lesser of two evils' choices," said La Tressa R. Hodges-Lumpkin, a coordinator for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in suburban Chicago. She was working at a voter registration event this week. "Is there apathy? Are you kidding? Without a doubt."
Fearful that such apathy will give Republicans another victory -- as in 1994 when only 37 percent of blacks voted -- African-American leaders are trying to get voters to the polls by ,, stressing, not so much Clinton's achievements but, as Jackson said, the alternative.
They say they believe they have a potent campaign tool in the 1994 Republican Congress.
"A lot of people had begun to say, 'There's no difference between the two parties.' " said Waters. "And then along came Newt Gingrich. And they said, 'Is that what a Republican is? The Contract With America -- is that what they want to do?' We've got a lot of new interest in participating because many people are frightened to death of what they saw in the past two years."
Ron Walters, a professor of African-American Studies and government and politics at the University of Maryland, said he believes the turnout among blacks this year could be 5 percent higher than it was in 1992.
"The push for Bill Clinton is much stronger than his pull," Walters said.
In recent weeks, Dole has been trying to tap into the black vote that traditionally falls to the Democratic side by about 90 percent. He spoke to a black journalists' convention, featured Powell and other African-Americans at his convention and selected Jack Kemp, a former housing secretary who leans to the left on civil rights matters, as his running mate.
Kemp's addition to the ticket is forcing the Clinton camp to step up its outreach to African-Americans, and sharpen the association of Dole with the conservative Congress. Democrats refer to a "Dole-Gingrich" axis far more than they mention Dole-Kemp.
Although he has recently retreated on his support for affirmative action, Kemp is planning to highlight his relations with and advocacy for African-Americans. He has scheduled visits to troubled inner cities, such as South Central Los Angeles, where he plans to walk through public housing communities.
But few think the Republicans' appeals will make a difference.
"There's a tremendous amount of cynicism and suspicion about the Republicans featuring all these black faces at their convention when only 2.6 percent of the delegates were black," said Bositis. "The impression for most African-Americans was that it was staged."
He said that the African-American speakers were showcased to appeal, not to blacks, but to moderate white swing voters -- suburban women and abortion rights supporters, for instance -- in an effort to erase images of extremism and exclusion.
Kemp's addition to the ticket, said Bositis, may succeed in bringing black Republicans home and giving Dole the usual Republican share of 10 percent of the black vote instead of "a historically low" 5 percent or 6 percent.
But it is not likely to move large numbers of votes. "If you look at any voting measure," said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, "there are few blacks voting Republican or independent."
Such loyalty to the Democratic Party has caused concern among African-Americans that their vote is taken for granted, allowing politicians to disregard their demands or needs. In 1992, in fact, Clinton made a point to distance himself from Jackson in an effort to cast himself as a moderate Democrat, and still banked on getting the support of Jackson's constituents.
But even Jackson is sounding more diplomatic than angry this year. "It is fair to say that both parties' power structures try to get as much as they can for as little as they can," he said, asked if the Democratic Party was taking the black vote for granted.
At the same time, he warns that if today's Democratic Party, as embodied by Clinton, abandons its traditional base as it moves to the right, it could pay a premium.
"Obviously, there are two wings of the Democratic Party. It takes two wings to fly. If either wing drops off, it's going to be like ValuJet," he said. "It's going straight down."
Pub Date: 8/29/96