Energize black voters with a mainstream economic agenda

click to enlarge WINNING COALITION: Two-term President Bill Clinton - understood how to appeal to the common concerns of - white, black and brown voters. Here, in 2001, a - woman in the Harlem section of New York City holds a - portrait of Clinton at a reception to celebrate his first - day in his Harlem offices. - Mario Tama
Mario Tama
WINNING COALITION: Two-term President Bill Clinton understood how to appeal to the common concerns of white, black and brown voters. Here, in 2001, a woman in the Harlem section of New York City holds a portrait of Clinton at a reception to celebrate his first day in his Harlem offices.

There is no question that the Democratic Party cannot win without the support of African American voters in 2004. African Americans are the most loyal block of voters the Democratic Party has, supporting it in numbers that far exceed their percentage of the U.S. electorate.Just look at the numbers. In 1996, Bill Clinton trailed Bob Dole among whites 46 to 43 percent, but got 84 percent of the African American vote and won the election handily. In 2000, Al Gore won an historic 90 percent of the African American vote, which was critical to his success in the popular vote. Given the increased polarization of the electorate and the disappearing "swing voter" in 2004, African American voters are more important than ever.

African American voters have especially forceful reasons to turn out to vote against George W. Bush. Chief among these is the high unemployment numbers the African American community has faced over the past three years. Corporate earnings may be back up, but the unemployment rate for African Americans rose to over 11 percent this fall. African Americans have been particularly affected by job losses in the manufacturing sector, meaning that they will face an even tougher struggle finding new jobs. By reconnecting with its core economic values, the Democratic Party can speak credibly to the failed economic policies of this president.

African Americans are acutely aware of the conservative part of Bush's agenda, but are left to wonder where the compassionate part went. Like the banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" several months ago, the Bush White House is good at crafting images, but not so good at providing the substance behind them. The tax cuts — Bush's sole economic policy — have certainly not helped African Americans. During the last round of tax cuts, half of all American families received less than $100 in the mail, a disproportionate number of them African American. Those Americans in the top 1 percent of households received more benefits than the bottom 84 percent combined.

Bush's rhetoric of optimism in the American economy has not reduced the record deficits he has caused, and even if GDP growth continues, Bush has saddled future generations with massive debt. African Americans already face a tough time getting financing to purchase homes, and more deficit spending inevitably means higher interest rates, hurting African American families even more.

The Democrats running for president have all proposed ways to establish tax fairness and restore fiscal sanity by at least repealing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. In an era in which all segments of American society should unite behind common causes, many American corporations have betrayed the nation, through fraud, deceit and greed. To many Americans, especially working Americans, Bush himself is symbolic of the corporate greed and cronyism that has undermined trust in the fairness of America. African Americans, acutely aware of the inequalities in the U.S. economy, must help change the direction in which this country is headed.

One in five African Americans has no health insurance. The costs for those who do have health insurance continue to rise. African Americans, more than ever, must ensure that America's political leaders take action on this ever-growing problem.

African Americans have good reason to challenge other domestic policy failures of the Bush administration. In 2000, Bush promised America that he'd reform education as we know it. His "No Child Left Behind" initiative did saddle states and local school districts with unfunded mandates and strict testing standards, but Bush never provided the resources. What the Bush Administration has offered is more than $8-billion dollars less than what Congress authorized for NCLB.

African American children, majorities of whom often attend overcrowded classes in dilapidated buildings, deserve better. Their parents take a back seat to no one — Republicans or Democrats — in supporting high standards and accountability. They want highly qualified teachers in their children's classrooms and a bright light focused on how their children are doing. But African-Americans know that real, effective reform can't be done — as the Bush Administration is attempting to do it — on the cheap. Democrats, who have always championed education, must remind African American voters that they will push real efforts to support and improve our public schools.

African American voters, many of whom did not support war against Iraq, must also question the President's record on foreign policy. They are right to question the President's failure to have a plan to rebuild in Iraq and the inexcusable lack of an exit strategy there, and to wonder why America has alienated itself from the rest of the world.

Those who believe the Republican Party can make a genuine appeal to African Americans and other minorities cannot overlook this President's record on race — from the appointment of conservative judges who are not strong defenders of important civil and voting rights remedies of past discrimination, to its failure to invest in America's urban centers. Still, Democratic candidates must show African Americans that they stand for equality and opportunity in America. The outcome of the 2004 election is going to be especially close. As the 2002 midterm elections indicated, even slight increases in African American turnout can be a deciding factor in who wins elections. Yet there may be a tendency by some in the Democratic Party to want to ignore appeals to African American voters in urban areas and the South, and instead go after coveted white suburban types. While Democrats clearly need to attract white voters to win, ignoring the African American community virtually guarantees yet another Democratic loss. African American voters stood with Bill Clinton — most especially through the darkest days of the impeachment scandal — because they believed with conviction that Bill Clinton stood with them. At the same time, Clinton was able to reach out to white and suburban voters. The choice is not mutually exclusive; the Democratic Party can reach out to all Americans in 2004. The way in which Democrats reach out to African American voters in 2004 is critically important. Drive-by campaigning, in which candidates spend months courting white voters and independents and then spend the last two weeks courting African American voters, is simply not acceptable. Democrats must reach out to African American voters and community leaders now and engage them not just for their votes but also to get their opinions about how our future should be shaped.

In numerous battleground states — including Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee and Florida — African American turnout is critical for Democratic victory. Voter outreach to African Americans in 2004 must be done at the grassroots, retail level. Reengaging African American voters will depend on a sophisticated coordination of the presidential campaigns, state parties, local activists and grassroots community leaders. There is definitely a strong case for defeating George W. Bush in 2004. Democrats must work especially hard to sell that case — and to listen to the interests of voters on whom their success depends. The Democratic Party must use its national leaders who are credible champions of issues African Americans care about to spread the word in 2004.

Finally, Democratic victory can be achieved if every vote is counted. We must demand that states comply with the new Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and ensure that minorities are not systematically disenfranchised in 2004. As 2000 indicated, states have a variety of methods of doing just that — by purging voter roles, by discriminatory distribution of antiquated voting machines, and by intimidating voters at the polls. There must be a vigorous voter education campaign, training of poll watchers, and an army of lawyers ready to monitor the elections to ensure that African Americans are not denied their constitutional rights this time around.

Donna Brazile is a Democratic strategist and former campaign manager for Vice President Al Gore.