Bradley takes a risk by discussing race

January 19, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

DES MOINES -- The conventional wisdom is that African-American and Latino voters will find it easy to support either Vice President Al Gore or former senator Bill Bradley against the Republican nominee in the general election campaign next fall.

No one questions the proposition that both Democrats are fully committed to economic and social justice for minorities. That was obvious when they confronted one another here in what was called a brown-black presidential forum limited to discussion of questions of particular relevance to minorities.

There are, nonetheless, subtle but genuine differences between the two on the race issue.

Mr. Bradley has chosen to make the race question one of the priority issues in his campaign. His goal, he says repeatedly, is to use the presidency to close the gulf between black and white that most politicians don't like to discuss during campaigns these days.

Danger of a backlash

On the face of it, this initiative seems politically counter-intuitive. The unspoken consensus among strategists is that any liberal who raises the race issue is likely to evoke a backlash from some socially conservative Democrats and independents.

With these voters, any gesture toward improving the lot of black Americans is quickly equated with the old politics of the Great Society. With these voters, every gesture is viewed as another way of forcing hard-working taxpayers to support people unwilling to work.

These are the so-called Reagan Democrats brought back to the Democratic line by candidate Bill Clinton's skill at depicting himself as a "different kind of Democrat" who, among other things, would insist on welfare reform.

These also were the Democrats who applauded most enthusiastically when Mr. Clinton deliberately affronted Jesse Jackson. In June of 1992, Mr. Clinton used a Rainbow Coalition luncheon to criticize the racist remarks of rap singer Sister Souljah, an earlier speaker at the same meeting, while Mr. Jackson sat at his side.

That maneuver resonated more than any other single action Mr. Clinton took during that first campaign. White voters hostile to blacks were still talking about it late in the year in places as diverse as rural Alabama and the blue-collar suburbs of Philadelphia.

Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 had suffered huge defections because, the polling showed, many white voters thought they had allowed Mr. Jackson to push them around. Now those same voters had a champion who not only stood up to Mr. Jackson but also put him down.

Eight years later, however, Mr. Bradley is convinced he can address the continuing racism in the country and build a majority coalition behind his views. "If I'm wrong, I'm toast," he says.

He is, like many former athletes who enter politics, a candidate with the special experience of having been involved in a joint enterprise with blacks -- 10 years as a member of the New York Knicks with such teammates as Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and Earl Monroe. It was no accident that Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell was in the front row for the debate here.

Tough race ahead

But it apparently is going to be an uphill march for Mr. Bradley, even among black voters. Approval of the Clinton-Gore administration's performance on race questions has given the vice president a lead of two to one or more among black voters. And black political leaders give Mr. Clinton high marks for naming minorities to key posts, though many of them were unhappy about his 1996 deal on welfare reform. Their support for the president was most conspicuous, according to the polls, when they stood by him far more than any other bloc of voters during the long Monica Lewinsky episode.

Mr. Gore, unsurprisingly, is getting the benefit. Among those doing the post-debate spin for the vice president were a prominent black person, Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, and an equally prominent Hispanic, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson.

There is some irony in the fact that the race issue has arisen in Iowa of all places. The Iowa Poll taken for the

cf03 Des Moines Register

cf01 found that fewer than 4 percent of those likely to attend the Democratic caucuses will be blacks or Latinos. In New Hampshire, where the first primary comes eight days later, minorities constitute an even smaller portion of the electorate. But Mr. Bradley doesn't expect the campaign to end there.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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