February 27, 2004

Democrats Need Dean’s Message to Win

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson


Howard Dean may be out of the presidential race, but if the Democrats have any real hope of beating Bush, they’ll need his message — especially, but not limited to, his tough talk on issues important to blacks and Latinos.

Dean showed that a party outsider could rise from political obscurity to effectively challenge the Democratic Party shot-callers, raise bushels of campaign dollars mostly through an aggressive use of the Internet and whip up the passions and activism of disaffected Bush opponents by pounding the president on Iraq and his failed domestic policies.

Dean refused to follow the script that former President Bill Clinton used in his victorious 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns. Clinton talked tough on national security, terrorism and greater defense spending and preparedness while putting forth modest positions on health care and social security and modest protections for labor, trade and the environment. True, these issues impact heavily on minorities and the poor, but they are not regarded as racially polarizing or alienating to the white middle class.

Dean, on the other hand, showed that it was OK for a top white Democratic presidential candidate to openly talk about race and poverty issues on the campaign trail, and prod other Democrats to do the same. He publicly backed affirmative action, DNA testing for prisoners and expanded prisoner rights. He vigorously opposed racial profiling. He vowed to appoint judges and an attorney general who would enforce and uphold civil rights laws and strengthen civil liberties protections.

He broke from the patronizing practice of trotting to black churches for votes and “Amen Corner” photo-ops. He met with black elected officials, business leaders and community activists and spelled out his positions on racial policy issues. He heard them accuse the Democrats of engaging in plantation politics — that is, that Democrats say and do little on racial issues, but still demand that blacks loyally vote for them out of fear that Republicans would wreak even more political damage.

In 2004, Kerry or Edwards will bag the majority of black and Latino votes. But the crucial question is how many minority voters will show up at the polls on Election Day. If large numbers stay at home, because of anger or apathy at the Democrats, no matter what either Kerry or Edwards says, or what Bush does or doesn’t do, neither Democrat can win. The Democrats will need every black and Latino vote they can get, especially in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan.

Even if blacks and Latinos stampede to the polls to vote for Kerry or Edwards, however, this still won’t be enough to put them over the top. White males make up 40 percent of the nation’s voters. They have provided the margin of victory for Republican presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush. In 2004, polls indicate that more than 60 percent of white males nationally and 70 percent of those in the South will vote for Bush. Democrats must pry a percentage of their votes from the Republicans. This will make them competitive in one or two of the Southern states.

That was Dean’s point when he said that Democrats must reach out to Confederate flag-waving, pickup truck gun-rack displaying good ole’ boys. Al Sharpton and the other white Democratic presidential contenders lambasted Dean as a closet bigot for those remarks. In his successful presidential campaigns, Clinton pulled a few states out of the Republican orbit. However, this did not significantly dent the Republican’s Southern political armor. In 1992, Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot grabbed much of the white male vote that would have gone to Bush Sr. This gave Clinton his narrow win.

Then there’s the issue of money. Kerry or Edwards can and will raise lots of it, but they still won’t match the expected quarter-billion dollar campaign war chest that Bush will raise from oil, gas, insurance and corporate special interests. These interests have fed at the Bush trough through his tax cuts and giveaways, and his gutting of labor and environmental protections.

Bush has the bully pulpit of the presidency to pump his agenda, free access to the conservative media to spin, duck, and dodge public attention from embarrassing issues or potential scandals such as Vice President Dick Cheney’s ties to Halliburton, Bush’s dubious National Guard record, the failure to find WMD in Iraq and the mess of the economy.

Dean tapped into the deep anger and disgust of millions with Bush’s policies. But he also tapped into their anger and disgust at the Democrats for pandering to those policies. Kerry or Edwards can tap into many Americans’ anger too, but they must embrace much of Dean’s message to do it.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and author of “The Crisis in Black and Black” (Middle Passage Press).

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