Southern ticket disquiets blacks

July 13, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Gov. Bill Clinton's choice of Sen. Al Gore for the vice presidential nomination is getting predictable declarations of support among the delegates who gathered here this weekend. But it also has served -- indirectly, at least -- to exacerbate tensions in the Democratic Party over the sensitive race question.

There is no questioning of Mr. Gore's commitment to civil rights; his record in unblemished. The same is true of Mr. Clinton himself. He is one of those politicians who, in the favored phrase of Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, "can talk the talk and walk the walk."

But the all-Southern ticket implies a general election strategy that some black leaders -- most notably the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York -- say doesn't give the required emphasis to issues of the greatest concern to black voters and the inner cities.

This is what Mr. Jackson was talking about until he grudgingly endorsed Mr. Clinton on Saturday night.

"The important thing," said Mr. Rangel, "is that the people in the community have to see some reason to get involved."

The alternative, the Harlem representative contends, is not that black voters will desert the party for President Bush or independent Ross Perot but that the turnout will be too low to deliver the states Mr. Clinton needs.

This is clearly a legitimate fear for the Democrats.Nonetheless, conservative whites who have deserted to Republicans in the last three elections are most often moved, opinion surveys show, by the perception that the party is bending over backward to accommodate blacks.

That is the reason that Mr. Clinton scored a ten-strike this weekend when he won Mr. Jackson's endorsement, however grudging, without going through a ritual meeting with the civil rights leader such as those Mr. Jackson forced on both nominees Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.

Mr. Clinton, by contrast, managed to project a picture of himself treating Mr. Jackson like any other prominent party figure -- no more or no less -- and getting away with it.

Although Mr. Jackson heatedly denies it, he reportedly was threatened with losing his place on the convention program if he did not endorse the ticket in advance.

Even at that, he has been assigned a slot on the program Tuesday night in competition with the baseball All-Star game.

But from the standpoint of the Clinton campaign, the down side of this uneasy detente is the possibility that, when coupled with the choice of Mr. Gore, it may seem to represent a turn away from full commitment to black concerns.

So the imperative for Mr. Clinton is to find a way to convince blacks and working-class whites that they have a common interest, particularly on economic issues, that transcends their differences.

In a three-way race, such a perception can make the Democratic ticket competitive all across the South and in all of the major industrial states with significant black populations.

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