Friday, January 02, 2004
Of course, 2004 isn't entirely boring yet. Here's something I've been thinking about:
The Democrats can't hope to win in 2004 without an energized African-American voter. Howard Dean, the presumptive nominee, has, essentially, no relationship with African-American voters. He doesn't speak their language, doesn't know their leaders, and his biggest opponent within the Democratic Party - Bill Clinton - is probably the white figure with the strongest appeal to the average black voter. Worse, Dean is absolutely clueless on race matters. His big story about his racial sensitivity is about how he had a black roommate in college and how broadening it was. He looks at race entirely from the perspective of a rich liberal white guy: he talks about "educating white folks" rather than lifting up black folks. Remember when Bill Bradley talked up how conscious he was of his "white skin privilege" and how well that line played with actual black voters (not at all) as opposed to race-obsessed "intellectuals" like Cornell West (very well indeed)? Dean's in the same territory, and he's less convincing because he's even more clueless. His race rhetoric has the one-two punch of being unconvincing to black people and annoying to whites who aren't committed liberals. (Correct me if y'all think I'm wrong on this; this is my impression.)
Dean may even have a race problem in the primaries. Yeah, he can win Iowa and New Hampshire without black support; these states are mostly white. But then we go south: Missouri, South Carolina and Oklahoma are all Feb 3 battlegrounds (as are Arizona and New Mexico, but the black vote in those two states is swamped by the Hispanic vote). Gephardt will win Missouri as the local favorite son. Clark and Edwards and battling for South Carolina, and Clark is battling everyone to challenge Dean in Oklahoma and Arizona. The black vote could make a big difference. Clark is an Arkansan, he's an army guy, and he's got the backing of the Clintons. It's not inconceivable that he makes a strong play for black votes, and that this helps him actually make this a race.
Unless, of course, Al Sharpton sucks up so much of the black vote that they no longer figure in the primary contest.
If I'm right about this, then the Dean folks have an incentive for Sharpton to do well in the early contests, in a repeat of Jesse Jackson's 1988 performance. But if he does do well, then Sharpton will have to be appeased at the convention. Anyone want to guess how that's going to play among swing voters? Among Southern whites?
Dean's supposedly going to pivot back to the center for the general election, likely by emphasizing fiscal conservatism - i.e. spending restraint coupled with tax increases. That's gong to be a great message for lower-income voters who disproportionately depend on government spending, and African-American voters who are disproportionately government employees.
Put it all together, and Dean - if he is the nominee - is going to have absolutely no room on racial hot-button issues in the general election. He will not have won the loyalty of black voters the way Clinton did, so he'll have no room for a "Sister Souljah" moment that establishes his credibility with white voters on racial issues. He may even have to do the opposite and appease Al Sharpton or risk having Sharpton play troublemaker at the convention. All that could spell general-election disaster for Dean among downscale white voters, which could be devastating to his chances across the South and Midwest.
I imagine this is something Clark's prominent backers have been thinking about pretty seriously.