No Show

Bush discounts the black vote while Kerry takes it for granted.

| Fri Jul. 16, 2004 12:00 AM PDT

George W. Bush's decision to skip the NAACP's annual meeting served as a reminder that his campaign has pretty much given up on doing better than the dismal 9 percent of the African-American vote it got in 2000. Back then, Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative" and actively sought votes from minorities, speaking of the "soft bigotry of low expectations" and talking a good game on civil rights. Candidate Bush, in a widely praised move, even addressed the NAACP, criticizing his own party: "There is no denying that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln…"

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But the Bush's relationship with the NAACP has been on a downward spiral since then. Soon after his 2000 visit, the organization ran an ad suggesting that Bush, as governor of Texas, went easy on the white-supremacist murderers of James Byrd Jr., an African-American man killed in 1998. Then came the Florida vote fiasco, in which around 54 percent of the 180,000 spoiled ballots were cast by African-Americans (despite their making up only 11 percent of the state's electorate). And then there are some pretty basic policy differences: Bush is a foe of affirmative action, and his economic policies aren't exactly geared towards minorities. The NAACP, moreover has been highly critical of the war in Iraq -- and indeed of Bush in general. As Deroy Murdock of the National Review puts it:

"No one should be surprised … to see Bush toss the NAACP's invitation into the trash. That's exactly where [it] has relegated him since 2000. NAACP chairman Julian Bond and president Kweisi Mfume have played tag team in bashing Bush and the GOP.

'So, we've got ... a president that's prepared to take us back to the days of Jim Crow segregation and dominance,' Mfume told Washington journalist Hazel Trice Edney just last week.

President Bush 'has selected nominees from the Taliban wing of American politics,' Bond informed the NAACP's New Orleans confab on July 8, 2001, as the September 11 hijackers learned to fly. 'He has appeased the wretched appetites of the extreme right wing. And he has chosen Cabinet officials whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection.'

No wonder Bush found a better use of his valuable time than to associate with these racial bomb throwers."

But the American Prospect's Michael Tomasky argues that there's something deeper at play here:

"… Policy differences aren't the real reason Bush isn't showing up this year. He isn't showing up because compassionate conservatism is out. …The same weekend Bush was snubbing the NAACP, he decided to focus his Saturday radio address on his push to ban gay marriage under the Constitution…

…Compassionate conservatism is out, and comprehensive conservatism is in. Only a tiny percentage of the electorate is up for grabs this year; maybe five percent. Political guru Karl Rove understands well that the administration's record makes fighting for that five percent a challenge. So the reelection campaign is clearly and only about shoring up the right-wing vote."

National Security advisor Condoleeza Rice told CNN she was "quite comfortable" with the president's decision not to speak to the NAACP, citing the president's Bush's record as "impeccable on civil rights, impeccable on the interests of African-Americans." Rice also pointed out that under President Bush, African-Americans have held "some of the highest positions in this government to which they've ever been appointed." NAACP leaders have not always been diplomatic in their disagreements with African-American conservatives like Rice. Mfume told the NAACP convention that:

"When the ultraconservative right-wing attacker has run out of attack strategy, he goes and gets someone that looks like you and me to continue the attacks…They can't deal with the leaders we choose for ourselves, so they manufacture, promote and hire new ones."

Kerry is aiming to equal or better Al Gore's 90 percent of the African-American vote in 2000, but he looks to be falling short. According to a recent Gallup poll, in a two-way race, Kerry led with 81 percent of the African-American vote compared to Bush's 12 percent. But in a three-way race with Ralph Nader, Nader gets 10 percent of the African-American vote, while Kerry's advantage slips to 73 percent, with Bush at 9 percent.

The NAACP hasn't been thrilled with the Democrats lately. The Kerry campaign is facing criticism for its lack of minorities on the staff to what is seen as its half-hearted campaigning among African-Americans. As Mfume put it:

"Accountability requires that we reject pandering of both parties. Every Republican is not our enemy, and every Democrat is not our friend. We still have a society where some in the Democratic Party take our votes for granted, and many in the Republican Party refuse to campaign for them."

This feeling that the Democratic Party is taking the African-American vote for granted could depress turnout at the polls. Furthermore, while African-Americans vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats, the percentage of those who identify themselves as independents and Republicans has increased in recent years. As National Public Radio's Juan Williams wrote in last month's New York Times (subscription required):

"It's increasingly clear that blacks are no longer willing to vote as a bloc, automatically lining up with the Democrats. This is particularly true of younger black voters. A 2002 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research group based in Washington, found a shift in the political identification of black voters. For example, 34 percent of 18- to 25-year-old black voters identified themselves as independents. Overall, 24 percent of black Americans of all ages see themselves as independents -- a four percentage point increase since the 2000 election. And now 10 percent of blacks call themselves Republican, a six percentage point rise since 2000."

Seizing his moment Kerry, in his Thursday address to the NAACP said that: "When you're president you need to talk to all of the people and that's exactly what I intend to do… The president may be too busy to speak to you now, but I've got news for you: He's going to have plenty of time after November 2nd."

In addition to Kerry's NAACP appearance, the announcement that Barack Obama (the African-American Democratic nominee expected to win the Illinois Senate race) will be giving a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention was also seen as an effort to boost the party's appeal among African-American voters.

Finally, in a long-awaited -- and belated -- move, the Kerry campaign has unveiled a $2 million ad campaign targeting African-American voters. But African-American politicians are highly disappointed with the new ads. The Kerry campaign has said that changes will be made. It will need to fix much more than the ads -- and soon. Most African-Americans will not vote for Bush this November; the danger for Kerry is that many may not vote at all.

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