Commentary Magazine


Topic: African-American vote

Race-Baiting and the Democrats’ Future

With the midterm campaign coming down to its last days, its been clear for weeks that the only way Democrats believe they can save some of their endangered red-state Senate incumbents is to play the race card. Both Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan have sought to identify Republicans with racism and even, in Hagan’s case, with the killing of Trayvon Martin or the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, in order to mobilize African-American voters. While these tactics are based on outrageous slanders, the decision to play the race card is logical if not scrupulous. The coalition that elected Barack Obama to the presidency twice relies on huge numbers of minorities as well as young people and unmarried women turning out to vote. The outcome on Tuesday will be largely dependent on whether that turnout resembles the ones of 2008 and 2012 or that of 2010 when Republicans won a midterm landslide. But whether or not the Democrats’ race-baiting tactics succeed, the real question facing the party is whether they are right to do so. And by that I don’t refer to whether the decision to sink this low is ethical but whether it is smart.

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With the midterm campaign coming down to its last days, its been clear for weeks that the only way Democrats believe they can save some of their endangered red-state Senate incumbents is to play the race card. Both Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan have sought to identify Republicans with racism and even, in Hagan’s case, with the killing of Trayvon Martin or the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, in order to mobilize African-American voters. While these tactics are based on outrageous slanders, the decision to play the race card is logical if not scrupulous. The coalition that elected Barack Obama to the presidency twice relies on huge numbers of minorities as well as young people and unmarried women turning out to vote. The outcome on Tuesday will be largely dependent on whether that turnout resembles the ones of 2008 and 2012 or that of 2010 when Republicans won a midterm landslide. But whether or not the Democrats’ race-baiting tactics succeed, the real question facing the party is whether they are right to do so. And by that I don’t refer to whether the decision to sink this low is ethical but whether it is smart.

The answer from Democratic operatives eager to preserve the party’s Senate majority as well as to lay the foundation for another smashing presidential win in 2016 would probably be something along the lines of declaring that all’s fair in love, war, and politics. If getting African-Americans to the polls requires cynically recycling racial incitement, then so be it. Moreover they see it as no more nor less ethical than Republican hacks employing concerns over issues like gay marriage or immigration in order to get their base to turn out.

But just as Republicans have learned the lesson in recent election cycles that excessive pandering to social conservatives has unforeseen consequences in the form of damaging blowback with moderates and independents, so, too, Democrats need to be wary of becoming the party of race incitement.

Waving the bloody shirt of Ferguson seems like a good idea to those who believe, not wrongly, that many African-Americans view such incidents as evidence of the enduring legacy of the nation’s history of racism. But the line between sending subtle hints about such issues and outright race baiting has clearly been crossed when, as Hagan did, Republicans are falsely accused of playing a role in killing young African-Americans. Nor did Landrieu do herself any favors by publicly complaining about the treatment of blacks and women in the contemporary south.

Both parties desperately need their bases to be enthusiastic about elections if they are to win. But both also need to remember that winning electoral majorities requires more than mobilization of true believers. Republicans have become obsessed with appeasing their core voters and paid for it at times by being slammed, often unfairly, as overly identified with extremists. But it seems never to occur to Democrats that over-the-top appeals to their base will exact a cost with the rest of the electorate.

In the past two years, we’ve heard a great deal of Democratic triumphalism about how changing demographics will ensure them an unshakable electoral majority for years, if not decades, to come. But as much as they certainly benefit heavily from the overwhelming margins they rack up among blacks and Hispanics, the notion that this alone will create a permanent Democratic hegemony in Washington is spurious. In the end, all parties must win over the vital center of the American public square. As Ronald Reagan proved, they need not sacrifice their ideology or their principles to do so. But when they go too far, they inevitably run aground.

That’s the real danger of a reliance on race baiting for the Democrats. It’s not just that African-Americans will grow tired of such obvious exploitation but that by linking themselves so firmly with such dubious tactics and extreme rhetoric, they drown out any reasoned arguments they might put forward for their party.

In 2008 and 2012, Democrats were able to rouse their base with positive messages of empowerment that revolved around the historic and deeply symbolic candidacies of Barack Obama while at the same time offering an effective if ultimately spurious promise of hope and change to the entire country. But in 2014, as Obama’s popularity has waned and then collapsed, they are forced to do verbal gymnastics as candidates seek to distance themselves from the president and his policies while simultaneously seeking to appeal to minorities that still revere him with negative race-based slurs about Republicans.

Thus, even if these tactics work to turn out blacks—and it is by no means clear that it will come anywhere close to the 2012 levels that Democrats desperately need—the party may be doing itself real damage with the public in ways that will harm their presidential candidate in 2016. As with other misleading memes they have beat to death, such as the spurious war on women that Republicans are supposed to be waging, Democrats are finding that they are fast exhausting the electorate’s patience and are running out of ideas. As much as playing the race card seems like a foolproof if unsavory tactic, it may not be as smart a move as they think it is.

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Ferguson Can’t Save Senate for Democrats

In a year in which the odds are heavily stacked against the Democrats it is to be expected that the party will try just about anything in their quest to retain control of the Senate. But the notion that President Obama’s party can somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by attempting to exploit African-American sorrow about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last month may be a new low in the long annals of cynical political stunts.

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In a year in which the odds are heavily stacked against the Democrats it is to be expected that the party will try just about anything in their quest to retain control of the Senate. But the notion that President Obama’s party can somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by attempting to exploit African-American sorrow about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last month may be a new low in the long annals of cynical political stunts.

The effort to cash in on the Ferguson tragedy was the conceit of a front-page New York Times feature yesterday that pointed to efforts to increase black turnout as the key to Democratic victory in November. Given that the Democratic base tends not to show up when the presidency is not at stake, the party knows that it must do something to gin up interest in congressional contests. That Democrats have come to rely heavily on minority turnout to win elections is not exactly a secret. The massive successful effort to get blacks as well as other minorities to the polls in 2008 and 2012 was essential to President Obama’s electoral triumphs. Looked at from that perspective, connecting Republicans to the police officer that shot Brown and Democrats to the effort to get justice for the victim makes sense.

But there are a few big problems with this formula that have nothing to do with objections to a strategy that is based on crass partisanship and shameless exploitation of a tragedy.

The first is, contrary to Democrat expectations, although African-Americans are the most reliable of the party’s key constituencies they were probably paying closer attention to the aftermath of the tragedy than most Americans. That means they realized that the most insensitive and most incompetent responses to the tragedy came from Missouri’s Democratic Governor Jay Nixon, not any Republican. Nor were prominent Republicans slow to express sympathy for the slain teenager or guilty of gaffes that could be exploited by the liberal media to create a narrative in which the GOP could somehow be directly tied to the shooting.

So while Ferguson may have angered blacks and made them more likely to engage in political activism, the incident isn’t the sort of thing that can serve as leverage in congressional and Senate elections that are being largely fought on issues that have nothing to do what happened in Missouri.

Second, the attempt to leverage angst about Ferguson into a wave of African-Americans turning out to vote for Democrats en masse requires the party to do some very careful maneuvering.

Rather than Barack Obama’s name being on the ballot this year, politicians that are doing everything in their power to distance themselves from the president will occupy the Democratic line in many places. While African-Americans may believe Democrats are supporters of their interests, it’s not quite so easy to mobilize them to save the political skins of senators who are simultaneously assuring white voters in red states that they disagree with the president on most issues and won’t be reliable supporters of the White House if they are returned to office. If, in the course of wooing African-Americans, senators like Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, or Mark Prior in Arkansas do get closer to the president that might fatally damage them with swing voters they desperately need to win. Indeed, though blacks are the heart of the Democratic Party in the south, their only hope of victory lies in grabbing the political center, not merely playing to the base.

Thus while Democrats may be cynical enough to try to run a pro-Obama campaign in the black community and an anti-Obama effort among whites, the idea that they can do so without either of these constituencies noticing that they are being two-timed if not outright lied to is slim.

Of course, that doesn’t deter race baiters like Al Sharpton, who both Politico and the New York Times recently anointed as President Obama’s go-to person in the African-American community, from trying to turn Ferguson into a political cause. Nor has it stopped other Democrats like Rep. John Lewis from attempting to use the tragedy to revive their glory days in the civil-rights movement. But resentment about police violence isn’t the moral equivalent of Obama’s candidacy, especially when it is obvious that what the establishment protesters are railing at is as much a function of the Democrats as it is the Republicans. If Democrats are going to hold the Senate they are going to have to do better than this tired, cynical racial act.

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NAACP Hurts Itself by Booing Romney

TPM has the videos of Mitt Romney getting booed (multiple times!) during his speech to the NAACP today. The Fix speculates that Romney’s “combative tone” did him in with the crowd:

By contrast, Romney criticized Obama for running a negative campaign, said the president could not bring economic recovery, and said he would eliminate “non-essential, expensive” programs like “Obamacare.”

His only reference to the historic nature of Obama’s win was to say that “if someone had told us in the 1950s or 1960s that a black citizen would serve as the forty-fourth president, we would have been proud and many would have been surprised.”

When the crowd started to boo, the candidate shot back combatively, ‘‘If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him. You take a look.”

Romney was booed for two things: promising to eliminate Obamacare and promising that his policies would make things better in the black community. He probably didn’t go into this speech expecting to win over the left-leaning NAACP, and the response didn’t seem to catch him off guard. Obamacare is unpopular with the majority of Americans, and the headlines on tonight’s news will now note that Romney promised to repeal it — the fact that he was booed for doing so doesn’t make a difference there.

The NAACP also didn’t do itself any favors by booing Romney’s earnest and unobjectionable promise to “make things better in the African American community.”

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TPM has the videos of Mitt Romney getting booed (multiple times!) during his speech to the NAACP today. The Fix speculates that Romney’s “combative tone” did him in with the crowd:

By contrast, Romney criticized Obama for running a negative campaign, said the president could not bring economic recovery, and said he would eliminate “non-essential, expensive” programs like “Obamacare.”

His only reference to the historic nature of Obama’s win was to say that “if someone had told us in the 1950s or 1960s that a black citizen would serve as the forty-fourth president, we would have been proud and many would have been surprised.”

When the crowd started to boo, the candidate shot back combatively, ‘‘If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him. You take a look.”

Romney was booed for two things: promising to eliminate Obamacare and promising that his policies would make things better in the black community. He probably didn’t go into this speech expecting to win over the left-leaning NAACP, and the response didn’t seem to catch him off guard. Obamacare is unpopular with the majority of Americans, and the headlines on tonight’s news will now note that Romney promised to repeal it — the fact that he was booed for doing so doesn’t make a difference there.

The NAACP also didn’t do itself any favors by booing Romney’s earnest and unobjectionable promise to “make things better in the African American community.”

African American leaders have long complained about Obama’s failure to address the unemployment problem in the black community, and criticized Obama for taking black support “for granted.” Well, why not, when Obama knows his political opponent will be automatically rejected by the NAACP and criticized by leaders in the Congressional Black Caucus? And why should future Republicans make an effort to address the NAACP — and support the organization’s political objectives — if they’re received with boos?

You can be sure Obama would start paying more attention to black unemployment if he thought Romney had a chance of cutting into his support. Judging from today, that’s not going to happen.

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