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For Democrats, the Issue Looks Black and White

January 17, 1988|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's 1984 campaign manager

WASHINGTON — The Democrats face an unpleasant fact: There are not enough votes in today's Democratic base to elect a President. Unless the party can nominate a candidate with a message that appeals to the traditional base and broadens that base to former Democratic white middle-income voters--particularly in the South--they cannot win. The party needs a candidate with a populist message that appeals to economic concerns of a black millworker in Macon, Ga., who still votes Democratic and a white accountant in Atlanta who no longer does. Without such a message, the Democrats are adrift.

This problem is often misstated among party leaders as a dirty little secret: What do we do with the blacks? The largest voting group still regularly voting for the party's presidential nominee is wrongly viewed as the obstacle to building a winning coalition. Ronald Reagan's unsubtle racist attacks on Democrats as supporters of welfare queens have had an impact. Whites--Southern males specifically--see every step up the economic ladder for blacks as a step down for them. Some Democrats have accepted this political fantasy as fact.

The wrong solution flows easily from that wrong question. Ignore the blacks. Leave them (code-named Jesse Jackson) to one end of the political spectrum, move to the middle and concentrate on regaining white Southern votes. After all, where can the blacks go on election day?

One flaw in that argument: Parties don't win elections by alienating their largest voting base. Blacks are not to blame for the Democrats' loss of white votes. And party leaders shouldn't kid themselves that blacks have nowhere else to go on election day. They can go fishing.

A winning coalition is built not by excluding blacks but by widening the circle. This requires an economic message that speaks to similar needs and hopes of both minorities and middle-income voters. It is likely to be found in the populist traditions of the party that remembers Main Street doesn't like Wall Street and Republicans are the party of privilege. It is not a message that has to appease every special-interest group to work. What it must do is give the voter who has not benefited from the Reagan Administration--and does not feel represented by it--a reason for voting Democratic.

Part of bringing this message to voters requires not ignoring Jackson. To deal with Jackson as an unelectable orator who can be bought off with a Cabinet position is to demean him and the voters he represents. No one disputes the fact that Jackson, despite his moderating rhetoric, still frightens many whites. But Jackson is a political force who must be accommodated. Party leaders should tell him, "We respect what you've done and we need you. Join us and let's win."

They might be surprised to find Jackson feels the same way. He understands that no constituency loses more than his if the Democrats lose again. He performed yeoman service by bringing new minority voters under the Democratic tent; they were essential in regaining the Senate in 1986. Lacking a white leader with a strong civil-rights record, Jackson is the party's access to the black community.

To see Jackson as an obstacle in regaining white votes misstates the problem and ignores the importance of his base. The problem lies in finding a unifying message. After the economic problems of the Carter years, much of the white middle class deserted the Democrats. A message that brings them back and that Jackson can take to his constituency is essential. Democrats may have lost elections with black votes--but in recent elections they have never won without them. For Democrats the answer is not playing black against white, but unifying them.

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