Bush should sit down with black caucus

March 15, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

REP. ELIJAH Cummings, Baltimore's 7th District congressman, finds himself talking to a lot more people these days.

Ascending to the chairmanship of the Congressional Black Caucus will do that for you. On Thursday afternoon around 4:30, Cummings found himself in a conference call with members of the Trotter Group, an organization of some of the finest newspaper columnists in the land who happen to be black.

Of course, being chairman of the CBC means you have to be Democrat and liberal. On this day, Cummings took the liberal-Democrat road in discussing the expected war with Iraq, and what he said is that President Bush has so far refused to meet with the caucus about that war.

Cummings is opposed to the imminent war, but he's not out of step with his 7th District constituents.

"The letters and e-mails that come into our office are probably something like 500-to-1 against the war," Cummings told the group. "And I come from a very diverse district. It's 60 percent African-American, 5 percent `other' and 35 percent white. One-fourth of my district is in Howard County, which is predominantly white. But no matter where I go, whether it's Howard County or Baltimore City, people are against the war."

Of course, "war" is the term folks in the peace movement like to use. Along with "pre-emptive strike." And "invading a sovereign nation." But there's another way to look at the hostilities looming on the horizon. Think of it as merely a mopping-up operation, doing what should have been done 12 years ago but wasn't because assurances were made that Iraqi jackboot Saddam Hussein would follow United Nations resolutions, disarm and behave himself.

Hussein hasn't. Former President Bill Clinton, speaking in December of 1998, said Hussein hadn't.

"So long as Saddam remains in power," Clinton said, "he will remain a threat to his people, his region and the world." Later in the same speech, Clinton contended that "over the long term, the best way to end the threat that Saddam poses to his own people in this region is for Iraq to have a different government."

That sounds amazingly like what Bush has been saying for months, but we can't dismiss his critics cavalierly. Cummings and his caucus colleagues are right to challenge the president and ask probing questions. True, the caucus is the body that in 1997 opposed Clinton's proposal for a national reading test for fourth-graders and math test for eighth-graders on the grounds that minorities would be stigmatized by a test that not only had they never taken, but hadn't even been created.

Yes, it's true that black New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. single-handedly had more impact decades ago than all 40-plus CBC members have as a group today. Yes, the caucus has its shortcomings, but perhaps Bush should meet with them.

The president has no incentive to do so, mind you. He received about 10 percent of the black vote in 2000, despite a tremendous outreach effort. Bush will lose few black votes if he doesn't meet with the caucus and will gain none even if he does. But this isn't about politics. It's about getting opinions across the spectrum. What if - and, granted, this is unlikely - members of the CBC are right about Iraq?

"We can't stand on the sidelines," Cummings told the columnists, "and watch our young people march off to war without at least trying to talk to the one person who can stop this."

The CBC priorities are, according to Cummings, "universal health care, decent schools, jobs and seeing that people can afford a college education." Cummings wonders, much as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did in the late 1960s, if the cost of war will drain much-needed dollars from social programs.

Cummings said the estimated cost of a war - or mopping-up operation or BEATDOWN PART II, whichever you prefer - is about $60 billion to $200 billion. The estimated cost of rebuilding Iraq and propping up what we hope will be a new democratic regime is $1.6 trillion. Democrats make the fiscal-responsibility argument about once every 40 years, but you've got to love 'em when they do.

The CBC members and their leader are on less solid logical grounds in supporting New York Rep. Charles Rangel's proposal for reinstating the draft.

"It was supported by the entire caucus," Cummings said of Rangel's proposal. "The military is disproportionately African-American and Hispanic. If we go to war, we will suffer more than our share of harm."

Reinstate the draft so more white guys will catch some lead? It doesn't quite sound like the moral high ground, does it?

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