CHICAGO -- More than anything said this week at the Democratic convention, a recent talk by Bob Dole -- to the National Association of Black Journalists -- may, in its way, play a role in shaping the destiny of the Democratic Party.
How could a Republican shape the Democratic Party? Read on.
Senator Dole offered his message without sugarcoating himself, his party or his convictions. He acknowledged that the Republican Party has made some mistakes about race. The 1964 GOP presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, voted against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Mr. Dole himself apologized for not appearing before the recent meeting of the NAACP.
He noted, however, that in his own congressional career he had vigorously supported the 1964 civil-rights legislation and voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its extension in 1982. He was the Senate floor manager of the bill that created a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. He bragged about his running mate Jack Kemp's long and sometimes lonely fight for civil rights within the Republican Party.
He spoke to the issues of "quotas, preferences and set-asides" with remarkable candor. He noted that his own position on such sorts of affirmative action has evolved: "I've supported race-based preferences in the past. But over time, I realized that preferences created with the best of intentions were dividing Americans instead of bringing them together."
Mr. Dole said that he and Mr. Kemp support "real affirmative action" to provide "outreach to give people opportunity to compete, but not preset outcomes to determine the results of that competition."
He described a "new civil-rights agenda focused not simply on rights." This would include a tax cut that would "unleash the hidden economic potential . . . in the inner cities," enterprise zones and a school-voucher plan that would allow poor children to attend private schools, just as many well-to-do children do now. All this would lead to real empowerment of minorities. Look us over, says Senator Dole.
It's been said before by Republicans running for office. It's never before scared Democrats, who normally get about 90 percent of the black vote. But the message has never been carried by GOP candidates with the civil-rights credentials of Messrs. Dole and Kemp. It has never before been coupled with an audacious political plan to change the electoral terrain of America, for better and for good.
Senator Dole told the black journalists that the time when Democrats can take black votes for granted is over. "I can think of few better outcomes of this election, not just for the black community, but for all America, than to have Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Bob Dole and Jack Kemp truly competing for the votes of African-Americans."
Expect to see a lot of Mr. Kemp, backed up by Senator Dole, in the inner cities of America, seeking converts, seeking to take the edge off the partisan politics of race.
Such a strategy should send a cold shiver down the backs of Democrats. They have accommodated many black concerns, but they do indeed take black votes for granted; they know it and blacks know it.
Any attrition is potentially dangerous for Democrats. There are sizable black communities in the major battleground states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. If the black vote goes from 10 percent Republican to 15 percent Republican in an otherwise-close election, those states could move to the GOP like falling dominoes. Senator Dole notes that he has routinely carried 27 percent to 30 percent of the black vote in Kansas. New Jersey's Gov. Christine Todd Whitman got 25 percent; California's Gov. Pete Wilson, 21 percent.
Another key number in the electoral combination was pointed out to me by Ron Walters, professor of African-American Studies and Government and Politics at the University of Maryland and author of "Black Presidential Politics in America: A Strategic Approach." He notes that in 1992, Ross Perot got 7 percent of the black vote. Mr. Perot is now in an electoral tailspin; Republicans can target those voters.
Mr. Walters, a long-time political adviser to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, says Senator Dole's speech was "the most candid speech by a Republican to a black audience," and that it received little criticism because it was so patently honest and honorable. He says that "Dole established the credibility and legitimacy that would allow Kemp to campaign heavily for the black vote."
If Mr. Kemp succeeds, it could be bad news for the Democrats in 1996. Even if he only shows early foot, it could bring Messrs. Clinton and Gore into the inner cities in a bidding contest with Republicans. That is the last thing Democrats want to do; long-term, if it happens, it would be good for all -- Republicans, Democrats, blacks, whites, Americans. We would be better off playing politics than racial politics.
Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, "Think Tank."
Pub Date: 8/29/96