Those divided Democrats

WILEY A. HALL 3rd

March 05, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Although it is still relatively early in the campaign, results from Tuesday's Maryland primary bode ill for the Democrats in November.

Exit polls indicate that neither of the top two finishers here was able to reach effectively across racial and regional lines. And unless that changes, it will be the same old story when the eventual winner faces off against even a weakened President Bush in the general election.

Maryland should have been an important prize Tuesday.

It was one of the first contests fought on neutral ground. It was one of the first states with a measurable percentage of minority voters. And it offered the first chance to see which candidate appealed to a diverse, rural, urban and suburban population.

But, as you know, the final result was very close: Paul E. Tsongas beat his closest rival, Bill Clinton, by just 7 percentage points.

The vote showed a splintered electorate.

Tsongas, for example, "won" the white vote but Clinton polled first among blacks.

Tsongas did best in the relatively affluent suburbs surrounding Baltimore and Washington. Clinton took Baltimore and the hinterlands.

And although polls show that Americans of all types and hues are very, very concerned about the future, 64 percent of the state's registered voters -- and approximately 58 percent of registered Democrats -- didn't even bother to go to the polls.

Thus, neither man apparently was able to build the kind of broad-based and enthusiastic following that each will need to beat Bush in November.

It shouldn't be this difficult.

I spent the last two days mall-hopping.

I went from Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore to Frederick Mall in Western Maryland. I dropped in on Harford Mall in the northeastern part of the state and Annapolis Mall in the south. 2/3 2/3 TC said hello to folks in Tysons Corner Mall outside of Washington, and to the folks in Towson Mall in suburban Baltimore.

I didn't talk to people who looked harried or unfriendly. And it may well be that talking only to people in malls yields a distorted view of reality.

But I talked to blacks and whites, elderly people and teen-agers, people who seemed affluent and people who seemed, well, more like me.

And the concerns of the people I talked to seemed remarkably similar regardless of race and class: Everyone was equally worried about the economy, education, drug abuse, crime and the breakdown of families.

Moreover, few people had strong opinions on what needed to be done about these problems. Everybody said they were waiting to be convinced. Everybody said they were looking for leadership.

Yet, the candidates appear to be sending out divided messages, segregated appeals.

They have taken an electorate that seems united in its concerns and unusually open-minded with regard to solutions and they are splintering it to bits.

Race and class are not the issues.

The issue is the candidates' apparent failure to overcome race and class.

Ironically, Jesse Jackson -- the man whom pundits condemn as divisive -- gave Democrats a blueprint for success when he last ran for president.

In 1988, Jackson was able to convince a sizable proportion of white voters that so-called "black" concerns were everyone's concerns.

During debates, Jackson consistently received the loudest and most enthusiastic applause when he talked about the need for strong schools, security for those with jobs and better opportunities for the unemployed, welfare policies that liberate rather than entrap -- even before predominantly white audiences.

Throughout the 1988 campaign, Jackson had higher approval ratings than any of his opponents. On Super Tuesday 1988, he got more than 2.5 million votes, coming in either first or second in 14 states, and winning more than 200 delegates.

However, Jackson also had the highest disapproval ratings. A quarter of the Democrats polled said they would never, ever vote for a black man. His controversial "Hymie" remark, coupled with his support of the Palestine Liberation Organization, alienated Jewish voters.

And even when Jackson was running neck and neck with Michael Dukakis innumber of delegates, he remained dead last in fund-raising.

But the Democrats made a serious mistake in 1988 and they are making a serious mistake now when they reject the blueprint along with the man.

I believe Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was looking for just this kind of unifying message when he pressed the major candidates to articulate an urban agenda early in the campaign. The mayor eventually endorsed Clinton.

But Clinton apparently was not as successful convincing middle class voters in places like Howard and Montgomery counties that a policy that revitalized the cities would redound to the benefit of the suburbs.

And the avowedly pro-business Tsongas was equally unsuccessful at convincing urban voters that what is good for the middle class is good for them.

Until either Tsongas or Clinton can find a way to bring together black voters and white voters, the affluent and the poor, they haven't a chance against Bush.

The big bad Republicans will continue to divide and conquer and then beat the Democrats like a drum in November.

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