Presidential race may depend on racial attitudes

March 01, 1992|By Theo Lippman Jr.

CHAIN REACTION.

Thomas B. Edsall and Mary D. Edsall.

Norton.

339 pages. $22.95.

MINORITY PARTY.

Peter Brown.

Regnery Gateway.

351 pages. $21.95.

Conventional wisdom has it that George Bush's presidency is imperiled by the continuing recession. If the authors of these books are right -- and I think they are as far as they go -- Mr. Bush will be re-elected even if the recession is still with us in November.

These books' almost identical analysis goes like this:

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won a landslide election. Many observers believed that Johnson's leadership in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed was in large part responsible for his victory.

The new law's philosophical basis was equality and fair play for blacks. It overturned state and local laws -- mostly in the Deep South -- that undergirded segregation, discrimination and white supremacy. Then, beginning in 1965, Democrats led at first by Lyndon Johnson junked that approach for one whose basis was special assistance for blacks, even preference.

A policy of preference for previously discriminated-against blacks was applied to many things -- contracts, hiring, promotions, college admissions. White reaction was predictable. In 1968, the mainstream liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon, who campaigned against racial preference. Nixon and segregationist George Wallace, a third-party candidate, got 62 percent of the white vote.

Democrats then made things worse by "reforming" the nomination process. Traditional party leaders such as mayors, governors and state chairmen were diminished in influence, and "rank and file" Democrats were enlarged.

The ranks and files from which the new power wielders came, however, were not in the mainstream of the party but its activist, passionate left flank. In 1972 the then-radical left wing Democrat, George McGovern, defeated Humphrey and other mainstreamers for the nomination -- and lost 49 states to Nixon. He got less than a third of the white vote. Millions of working-class and lower-middle-class whites who usually had voted Democratic in the past united with the wealthy in a "top-down" coalition to re-elect Nixon. The old Democratic "bottom-up" coalition of the middle class and the poor was devastated.

The "reforms" and the party's identification with preferences for blacks have haunted it ever since. Only in 1976 has a Democrat won the presidency. That was Jimmy Carter, who was mistakenly assumed to be no liberal on civil rights by many fellow Southerners. Revealed to be in his presidency, he lost in 1980 to Ronald Reagan in the first of three 1980s Republican landslides that give these books their special relevance to 1992.

So what? So plenty. The Edsalls (he's a former political writer with The Sun and Evening Sun) are particularly good at explaining how the "top-down" coalition Republicans have put in place has benefited the well-to-do enormously, the middle class very little if at all, the poor not at all. This bothers the Edsalls, who are clearly liberals of the sort who believe people in the lower part of the income distribution deserve much better.

While both books point out that race alone did not break apart the old New Deal coalition (and that reform alone doesn't keep it broken), race is clearly the issue that mattered most in the authors' eyes. Many white voters, the authors agree, not only reject privileges and special benefits for blacks; they also reject programs that even when impartially and equitably administered such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- benefit blacks disproportionately. Many white voters believe such programs reward what they consider black laziness, fecundity, immorality and criminality. Often this white attitudinizing is a cover for racism. But sometimes it is simple selfishness or an honest assertion of values.

In my view, inciting white antipathy to the civil rights agenda of the Democratic Party to the point of racism is the proverbial club in the Republican closet. It's there when the party really needs it in a close race, which some predict this year's may be. Some believe that George Bush grabbed it out of the closet in 1988. Maybe, but it is interesting that he got a smaller percentage of the white vote than Reagan, Nixon and Eisenhower. Besides, as the Edsalls concede, given Democratic expressed concern for prisoners' rights, the prisoner-furlough issue was a legitimate topic for political debate.

I recommend these books. Mr. Brown's is breezy and fun to read, if often unnecessarily brittle and snide. The Edsalls' compilation of statistics is sometimes numbing, but the stats and the authors' wise perspective on them belong on any serious person's reference shelf.

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