Man Without Qualities

Friday, November 29, 2002

The Losing of a Constituency?

Most African-American voters vote for Democrats if they vote. But the Louisiana Senate race now heading for a Pearl Harbor Day conclusion gives some examples of how Democrats may be losing many of their African-American voters nationally. The loss, if it is happening, would not at this stage be seen in defections to Republicans - it is a matter of turn-out.

Incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is trailing in the polls, and is widely expected to lose on December 7 - largely because African-American voters are not sufficiently behind her. Yet, as Robert Novak and others point out, Senator Landrieu has a voting record that is both liberal on a national scale (not just in relation to the South) and substantially more liberal than that of Louisiana's senior senator, Democrat John Breaux. Senator Breaux "hugs the middle of the road" -- and is rated 55 percent by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and 48 percent by the American Conservative Union (ACU). But Senator Landrieu has voted 85 percent liberal (ADA) and 28 percent conservative (ACU).

What is curious here is that Senator Landrieu simultaneously has a liberal voting record and very big problems with African-American voters. Some key members of the African-American community have refused even to endorse her candidacy. But conventional wisdom holds that liberal votes aren't supposed to create problems with African-American voters - those voters are supposed to like a liberal voting record, and are supposedly offended by the conservative votes that a southern Democrat has to cast through grit teeth to hold onto white moderate votes. But not all liberal votes are created equal. Robert Novak, for example, catalogues some of Senator Landrieu's votes:

A small sample: Prohibit federal funding of abortion: Landrieu, no; Breaux, yes. Mandatory trigger locks: Landrieu, yes; Breaux, no. Broad prescription drug coverage under Medicare: Landrieu, yes; Breaux, no. Federal funding for school distribution of "morning after" pills: Landrieu, yes; Breaux, no. ... She voted against confirmation of John Ashcroft as attorney general and Theodore Olson as solicitor general, against school vouchers and against the Bush administration on a variety of budget questions, including caps on spending. Most recently, she was lined up with government workers unions to restrict presidential control over employees of the new Department of Homeland Security.

What is striking about these "liberal" votes is her apparent emphasis on the social side of liberalism that finds disproportionate favor among white, suburban, liberal women - that is, the more liberal of the "soccer moms." But this brand of liberalism doesn't seem to mean very much to African-Americans - to judge by Senator Landrieu's difficulties in that quarter. Senator Breaux seems to understand that.

Many commentators - including Robert Novak in his column linked above - focus on the difficulties southern Democrats face in holding white-moderate votes without losing too many liberals. The Clintonian formula for accomplishing those ends combines "fiscal responsibility" and "economic conservatism" with big doses of social liberalism and major racial "demonization" efforts against Republicans. That formula entails delivering less through old-fashioned redistributionistic economic policies, while nevertheless counting on African-American voters to turn out with enthusiasm for Democrats, largely on the basis of social liberalism and racial "demonization."

But Mary Landrieu's problems suggest that social liberalism may not inspire African-American voters all that much. And President Bush's performance in office has substantially blunted the Democrats' racial "demonization" weapon with respect to African-Americans, although many Democrats are willfully determined to deny that development. Further, if Democratic "fiscal responsibility" is not just political hooey served up by some smooth-talking Clintonian, but really does entail less spending and regulation intended to transfer wealth to African-Americans, then one would expect a decline in enthusiasm for Democrats among some African-American voters. Senator Landrieu seems to have suffered on all of these fronts. Her socially liberal voting record is not attracting sufficient African-American support. Like most Democrats nationally, she has not succeeded in racially demonizing her opponent. And the "moderate" component of her voting record is weighing disproportionately on her African-American support.

In other words, Mary Landrieu's problems suggest that the Clintonian approach may be exhausted. If so, the Democrats' problems should not be restricted to the South, although the problems are first and most evident there. A lot of post-election text has been spent discussing Democratic problems in the South, but closer analyses of Republican wins in Massachusetts and New York, and of the close governorship race in California, may shed additional light. In particular, Democratic problems should go well beyond any boost Republicans enjoyed in the last election from national security and foreign affairs issues.

POSTSCIPT: The Associated Press collects a number of events which are, and should be, frustrating to African-American Democrats. The elevation of Nancy Pelosi over Harold Ford, and the retention of Hillary Clinton functionary Terry McAuliffe as head of the DNC over Maynard Jackson, a former and successful Atlanta mayor, are just two examples of the undependable, white socially liberal side of the Democratic Party squeezing out what is now probably that Party's most central constituency.

Louisiana Democrats say that a new poll shows that Mary Landrieu's has a serious lead: 50%-34% over her Republican opponent, Terrell, whose own staff dismissed the Democrat's poll as inaccurate and said their own poll showed Terrell winning.

The voters to decide in another 5 days.



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