Kerry's reaching out to African-Americans
When presidential hopeful John Kerry's staff invited me and four
other black columnists to a "get-acquainted" meeting,
I bristled at the possibility of a pander-fest. Fortunately, it
never got worse than pander-lite.
Pandering in politics can be like water to fish. On the same day
that Kerry met with us, a friend called my attention to the "Compassion"
page at the Web site for President George W. Bush's re-election
campaign. Almost all of the pictures on the page's "photo
album" showed Bush having a happy time with African-Americans.
"Compassion" appears to be a code word for "black
people" in Bush-Cheney-land.
By contrast, Kerry's outreach to blacks calls itself precisely
that. On the same day, April 7, that he delivered a major address
on jobs and the economy at Georgetown University, Kerry's staff
organized a "getting to know you" meeting with Gregory
Kane of the Baltimore Sun, George Curry of the National Newspaper
Publishers Association News Service, Deborah Mathis of Tribune
Media Services, Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute for Journalism
Education Web site and me.
"You are the agenda setters; I'm the pinata," Kerry
said, taking off his jacket to spend an hour with us in his Washington
campaign headquarters. We cared less about beating him up than
pinning him down, particularly on issues of concern to African-Americans.
It turned out, I am happy to report, that he did not see such
issues as much different from issues of concern to all Americans.
Kerry has been to dozens of black churches and black-oriented
events on the campaign trail and it showed, particularly on what
I call the obligatory litmus-test bromides of black Democrats:
He unequivocally supported the "Mend it, don't end it"
approach to affirmative action that was advocated by President
Bill Clinton. He criticized President George W. Bush's judicial
appointments. He noted that his own campaign staff has had the
largest black staffing, 17 percent, of any presidential campaign
this year except maybe the Rev. Al Sharpton's.
From memory, he cited "health and job disparities in our
communities of color": "...African Americans have two
and half times greater mortality rate ... twice as likely to have
diabetes ... nine times more likely to have HIV AIDS ... Go to
New York, 50 percent of African-American males are unemployed
there. What's George Bush doing about it?"
But Kerry mostly practiced the politics of addition, not division.
Like a good Clinton-era centrist, he saved most of his passion
for issues that the broadest number of Americans would care about,
regardless of race or ethnicity.
He promised to "create 10 million new jobs," "restore
fiscal responsibility to our budgeting process ... put health
care number one on our agenda for Americans" and "attack
this separate and unequal school system we have" by fully
funding the Bush administration's controversial No Child Left
Behind school reform program.
Critics, particularly in the Bush camp, have attacked Kerry's
proposals as "class warfare" and the like. Frankly,
I don't think his ideas sound any less plausible than Bush's campaign
promise to create jobs by putting more money in people's pockets.
Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of The Washington Monthly, writes
in its April issue, "when you're running for office, even
a dumb theory is better than no theory at all."
Glastris' article focuses on how Kerry can create jobs. The senator
needs big themes like that to present to voters in the way that
Clinton in 1992 used themes like economic-stimulation-through-deficit-reduction.
Conservatives like to say that government really doesn't have
much of an impact on jobs. History shows otherwise. As far back
as Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, government has used
its budget power to create new jobs and spur productivity. Abraham
Lincoln's land-grant college system, the GI Bill, the interstate
highway program and federally insured home loans are other examples.
So is the Internet, created by the Defense Department and developed
with the help of legislation promoted by then-Sen. Al Gore.
Kerry can connect with voters with rhetoric and passion, but he
also needs to give them some ideas to take home as an alternative
to the Bush vision, such as it is. Anger among Democrats against
Bush is helping Kerry to clinch his party's nomination, but he
also needs to offer a sense of hope for a better future. Clinton,
like Ronald Reagan, understood the power of an optimistic vision.
Kerry needs to make that power work for him.