Clinton tries to prevent race from splitting party ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

September 28, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON--As a piece of political analysis, President Clinton's comments on the role of race in the New York City mayoral campaign could not be faulted. It has been clear from the outset that David Dinkins' chances of winning a second term were being severely compromised by the defections of white Democrats.

But, given his own political history, the president could not -- and did not -- fault Republican Rudolph Giuliani for playing off racial concerns in his contest with Dinkins that is now considered a dead-even race. Clinton himself did the same thing in his election to the White House a year ago.

Nobody has ever had any grounds to accuse the president of racism, not in his years as governor of Arkansas nor in his campaign and presidency. On the contrary, Clinton has an exemplary record on race issues and earned the support of many prominent black political leaders last year.

But one of the keys to establishing himself in 1992 as "a different kind of Democrat" was his success in touching a nerve with culturally conservative "Reagan Democrats" whose racial resentments are well established. Candidate Clinton did that with a single stroke when he used a meeting of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in Washington as the occasion for sharp criticism of Sister Souljah, a black rap singer who had made some inflammatory remarks on race in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots.

After the fact, the president denied it was his intention to affront Jackson in such a public way. But, whether or not it was intentional, the effect was to send a message to those working-class white voters that this was a Democratic nominee who would not be pushed around by the civil rights leader as those voters believed was the case with both Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Campaigning for Dinkins in New York, Clinton raised the issue in relatively benign terms. Discussing the political problems facing the Democratic incumbent, he said, "Too many of us are still too unwilling to vote for people who are different than we are." With too many voters, he said, there is a "deep-seated reluctance we have against all our best judgments to reach out to people who look differently."

The issue, the president said, "is not as simple as overt racism. It's this inability to take that sort of leap of faith and believe that people who look different than we are really are more like us" than some of the same race.

Clinton could not have chosen a campaign in which race is a more significant factor. Dinkins is in political peril largely because of defections of traditionally liberal white voters, most often Jewish Democrats, who believe Dinkins was slow to act against LTC blacks rioting in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn two years ago and then against blacks threatening Korean storekeepers. And the campaign is centering almost every day on some remark or action from one campaign or the other that the opposition quickly depicts as racism.

But racial resentment is a factor in almost every election involving black candidates and in many cities and states where there is a large black population even if all the candidates are white. Moreover, this pattern has become even more pronounced with the increasing focus on crime in the streets, which white voters tend to view in racial terms. In New York this fall, the preoccupation with crime has become almost an obsession in many neighborhoods, with the result that many traditional liberal Democrats are deserting their party.

Dinkins' problems as a mayor seeking re-election are not all race-related, of course. The condition of the economy in the city has created a difficult context for an incumbent. And the mayor has never been conspicuously skilled at making his own case in a forceful way.

But if Dinkins were white, the political equation might be different. Although he might not be getting the 90 percent-plus share of the black vote now shown in the opinion polls, neither would he be winning only one-fourth of the support of Jewish Democrats.

It was to these likely defectors that Clinton was talking when he campaigned for Dinkins over the weekend. But the message would apply in many communities.

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