How the Democrats Passed a Civil Rights Bill: In a Way that Assured Polarization and a Veto Attempt to Depict Republicans as Racists Made Compromise Impossible

June 09, 1991|By PETER OSTERLUND

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Tom Foley's basset-hound countenance looked more basset houndish than usual when he lumbered out of the House chamber Wednesday afternoon. And who could blame him?

Sure, the House of Representatives had just adopted a sweeping, all-Democratic anti-discrimination bill, 273-158 -- one single, desperately-wrung vote over the margin by which a comparably ill-fated bill had been adopted the year before. But ,, President Bush had promised to veto the legislation, and a two-thirds majority of those voting is needed to override a veto. You do the math.

And so, the Democratic party succeeded in that for which it is so practiced -- falling on its sword. Mr. Foley, the redoubtable Speaker of the House, must have known this to be so. Being an intelligent man, he surely recognized an even more infuriating truth: It didn't have to end up this way.

In fact, it wouldn't have ended this way if the Democrats hadn't chosen to fight the civil rights fight with racial politics as virulent as the Republican approach they professed to revile. But they plotted instead to isolate their GOP opponents with a too-cute-by-half legislative strategy.

Why? A mixture of unbridled hubris and frantic political miscalculation, both of which underscore the desperate straits in which the Democratic Party finds itself today.

First, the miscalculation. Many Democrats genuinely believed that Mr. Bush was -- or, at least, some of his lieutenants were -- trying to kill civil rights legislation through an appeal to the Caucasian public's fear of racial integration. They were right, of course. It was their follow-through that caused problems.

First, House Democrats stacked the deck against Mr. Bush, refusing to negotiate the terms of the bill with House Republican leaders. That set up the inevitable veto confrontation with the president, which they endeavored to portray as the struggle of enlightenment against the forces of bigotry.

In the process, the Democrats polarized Capitol Hill -- and possibly the country -- to the extent that passage of a civil rights bill may be well nigh impossible in this Congress. Some pols might consider that a fair trade for a strengthened party. But no one, save the hardest-core apologists, depicts this debacle as a party-strengthening exercise.

"The Democrats sought to paint Bush into a corner and make the Republicans out to be racists," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.

"I think," said Rep. Ed Jenkins, D-Ga., "we overreached on this one."

In all fairness, it's hard to blame them: A candidate who floats into the Oval Office on Willie Horton's coattails can hardly be accused of racial sensitivity. So when Mr. Bush fingered congressional liberals as quota-lovers, some considered it a none-to-subtle camouflage of a less respectable accusation.

Having challenged the president to a showdown, however, Democrats failed to greet the Republican onslaught with anything more than dialectical incoherence. "We flailed a lot," admits one Democratic staffer.

There were a few voices of good sense. "We've got to turn people's heads from the idea that black people are going to take their jobs away from them," said the Democrats' Whip, Rep. William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania. "We've got to get them to focus on the real issue: That ten years of Reaganism and Bushism has left this country in a heap of trouble."

More often, that kind of powerful, populist message -- one that must be at the heart of any Democratic attack on Republican incumbency -- was lost in an blur of shopworn malapropism. Typical were the thoughts of Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, D-Ohio: "I think we're getting the message across that the Republican party is the party of CEOs -- white and male." Take that, Mr. & Mrs. America.

If the Democratic party possessed a known mission, its representatives in Congress might have sketched out a better plan of attack. Lacking that degree of self-knowledge, they fell into name-calling, effectively attempting to portray Mr. Bush and his supporters as closet racists.

Ms. Lake suggests that's a pretty good tactical idea: Racism resonates with suburban voters, who will make up 50 percent of the electorate -- 75 percent of the "swing" vote -- in the 1992 elections.

But suburban manners were not lost on Mr. Bush either, who countered with a less comprehensive anti-discrimination package. "Ronald Reagan would never have bothered to introduce a civil rights bill of his own," she says. Mr. Reagan enjoyed a much stronger base of appeal among blue-collar Democrats, the very conservatives who tend to be least sympathetic to affirmative action initiatives.

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