Black voters key Clinton ally at polls, on the Hill

September 24, 1998|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton struggles to keep his presidency afloat, black voters suddenly find themselves holding important life jacket.

Simply put, it works like this:

One, Republicans need to get Democratic votes to win impeachment. A two-thirds majority is needed for impeachment and the appearance of bipartisanship is crucial to avoid the appearance that Republicans are merely trying to overturn a legitimate election that they lost.

Two, Mr. Clinton is unlikely to step down on his own unless leaders of his own party tell him it is time.

And, three, Democratic leaders aren't eager to do either one or two, if it offends black voters, the most party's most loyal demographic group.

A survey black pollster Ron Lester conducted for the Democratic National Committee last month found the percentage of black voters who identify themselves as Democrats had climbed to 82 percent from 74 percent four years earlier.

Also, 84 percent said they would vote for Democrats and 13 percent for Republicans in November, the highest generic ballot he had seen in 15 years, Mr. Lester said.

Standing by their man

Lately, black voters have been extending that loyalty to the president. For example, a CBS News/New York Times poll taken after the Starr Report came out showed white support for Mr. Clinton's job performance at 58 percent, compared with 86 percent for blacks. Only 22 percent of whites, compared with 63 percent of blacks, approved of his moral values, and 55 percent of blacks, compared with 32 percent of whites, blamed the current scandal on Mr. Clinton's "political enemies.".

Now, after years of being ignored by Republicans and taken for granted by Democrats, black voters stand to make the crucial difference in more than two dozen competitive House races in the Nov. 3 elections -- if they turn out and vote.

That's a big "if." Democratic leaders, burdened by a scandalized president, fear another disaster at the polls this November. Democratic voters are dispirited by the Lewinsky affair and Republicans are energized, quite the opposite of the way Republicans were dispirited and Democrats energized in 1974 by the Watergate affair.

Which raises two questions: Will black support be enough to save the Clinton presidency?

And what can he learn from his success with African Americans to win more support from other Americans?

Mr. Clinton long has enjoyed high black support, higher in some surveys than black leaders enjoy. A study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank, found Mr. Clinton was more popular among blacks than either the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson or retired General Colin L. Powell.

I see three big reasons for Mr. Clinton's high black support: loyalty, suspicions and vulnerability.

Helping a friend

LOYALTY. Black people reflexively circle their wagons around a friend under fire. Most black voters consider Mr. Clinton to be a friend. Polls and focus groups show African Americans tend to see the GOP-dominated Congress as hostile to the interests of blacks and many are suspicious of the investigations of Mr. Clinton. Mr. Clinton wins praise for his black appointments and support for his policies on Haiti and affirmative action. Seemingly forgotten are Mr. Clinton's support for controversial crime and welfare reform legislation.

SUSPICIONS. The sight of Mr. Clinton under siege evokes echoes of past conspiracies and lynch mobs. Similar upsurges in black support greeted the trial of O.J. Simpson and the hearings for Clarence Thomas.

VULNERABILITY. As a historically embattled group, African Americans appreciate the high political stakes involved. The more Mr. Clinton paints his tormentors as politically motivated, as he painted the Paula Jones lawyers in his videotaped grand jury testimony, the more attention he distracts from his personal carelessness.

Vulnerability also helps explain the support Mr. Clinton always has received from women, gay rights activists and others who feel vulnerable to conservative assaults.

Are blacks being duped by Mr. Clinton's charms? Clinton bashers, tireless in their venom, will be quick to say so. But it is only common sense to support political leaders who support your interests and protect them when they are in trouble.

This, by the way, may help explain why the Framers, in their wisdom, established an impeachment procedure that would be judged in the legislature, not the courts.

In that way, the Framers set up a mechanism that would help all voices to be heard. Among them are the voices of the loyal, the suspicious and the vulnerable. Mr. Clinton's critics might not like it, but that's how democracy is supposed to work.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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