A political dM-itente

December 15, 2004

SHORTLY AFTER Congress reconvenes next month, 42 House members and one senator will take a daylong retreat to craft the Congressional Black Caucus' political plan for the new term.

The group must shape an agenda that encompasses the views of an increasingly independent-minded constituency separated by class and social affiliations, political beliefs and religious convictions, life experiences and personal ambitions. It must then try to promote this agenda in a Republican-controlled Congress heavily influenced by a re-elected president who snubbed caucus members in his first term.

Incoming chairman Rep. Melvin L. Watt of North Carolina says no matter who occupies the White House or which party controls Congress, the caucus' mantra won't change: "No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests."

Those interests include health care, education, civil rights, employment and poverty, among other issues that Mr. Watt rightly contends have wide racial disparities. Sharing those interests, though, doesn't mean there is a monolithic "black community," as the Democratic Party and all-Democratic caucus have long assumed.

Changing such thinking is the caucus' biggest challenge. If it and long-time partners such as the NAACP want to remain relevant to large segments of the black electorate, they must broaden their horizons beyond traditional political borders. For proof, they need only look at this year's election results. While most black voters voted Democratic, more defected to the Republican Party than in the 2000 elections. Though small, the numbers may signal subtle shifts that could turn into trends. Black ministers aligned with conservative white Republicans to fight gay marriage. Black clergy embraced President Bush's faith-based initiative. Black business owners increasingly complain the caucus is anti-business.

Traditionalists argue the country's election shift rightward makes the caucus and the NAACP more relevant, and their agendas more essential than ever to blunt attacks against hard-fought political gains. They say civil and voting rights have taken beatings under Mr. Bush. They worry about Supreme Court appointments. Until the socioeconomic status of most American blacks improves, their political and civil rights leaders must stay on message, such advocates say.

Should black leaders speak with one voice? If so, which one? This is an opportune time to consider such questions. The NAACP is changing leadership. The Democratic Party is undergoing serious post-defeat analysis at the same time that black voters are asking themselves why they should continue to closely align themselves with just one party. The discussions taking place are capable of causing deep fissures or ushering in refreshing changes. Mr. Watt and other caucus members must take the lead.

Greater diplomacy from Mr. Bush wouldn't hurt, either. The outgoing caucus chairman, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, has been very frustrated at the president's failure to meet regularly or even consult with caucus members. The president also refused to address the NAACP this year, citing its leaders' harsh criticisms of him; these are believed to have prompted an IRS audit of the group's tax-exempt status. And just last week, Mr. Bush named a black conservative who opposes affirmative action to lead the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

But Mr. Bush doesn't risk much by failing to extend an olive branch. Stakes are higher for the caucus. Reaching out is a good idea; branching out is even better.

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