If Democrats want the presidency’s bully pulpit from which to pursue racial equality, they need to find another way to talk about it. Advocating workfare isn’t enough. Perhaps the Democratic candidate could take a cue from John Silber’s 1990 gubernatorial primary campaign, which, Silber shockers notwithstanding, did well among low-income voters both black and white.
Like Silber, the candidate should find issues that represent common ground between those groups – public-education reform and strict anti-crime measures come to mind – and milk them. Shelve the old civil-rights buzzwords like “economic justice” and “fairness,” which the Republicans have long since turned into code phrases for welfare and reverse discrimination. A David Duke vitory in Louisiana might well ruin the GOP’s plan to use racial fears among whites as a campaign tool. What a shame if self-righteous Democrats are the only ones left waving that bloody shirt.
Accentuate the Positive
“I don’t think the message is ‘The ship is floundering’ – that runs dangerously close to being the voice of gloom and defeatism,” says one national Democratic consultant. “There’s a real temptation to talk about how bad things are, but people are looking for a captain to move us full steam ahead.”
Adjusting to that mood means jettisoning yet another Democratic mantra, the one about how awful and amoral the Reagan-Bush years have been. Democrats now pandering to the middle class with promises of national health care and tax cuts need to acknowledge how good the 1980s were for many of those voters. Increasingly, voters are registering as independents, splitting tickets, and balancing congressional liberalism with presidential conservatism. By doing so, they’re saying two things: the parties bore us; and we’re not wedded to any partisan ideology.
In every recent poll, roughly two-thirds of the public say the country’s not on the right track. A candidate can score credibility points by arguing that, in the national flow of American political life, conservatives have run out of ideas the same way liberals did 20 years ago. The argument highlights Bush’s ineffectual tentativeness and makes a case for change that avoids insulting middle-class beneficiaries of the Reagan-Bush era.
Tack on a couple of actual ideas, and you might have a competitive candidate. For instance, call for a presidential line-item veto. The position suggests fiscal responsibility, expresses appropriate contempt for the budget-balancing ability of Congress, and neatly puts Bush on the defensive. He’s been in favor of the line-item veto for years, but gave up on it during negotiations over the 1990 budget deal – the one in which he abandoned his “read my lips” no-new-taxes promise.
Demand a major cut in foreign aid. Even after the failed Soviet coup, the vast majority of Americans were against additional aid to the Soviets. Many of them think Bush is focused on foreign affairs to the detriment of domestic needs and seeking out a difference with him over aid reminds voters of that concern. Attacking foreign aid may seem a tad crude to the Kennedy School crowd, but this isn’t a campaign for style points.
Be Aggressive, But Not Strident
By all means, employ the Norman Schwarzkopf strategy – go on the attack and stay there. When Pennsylvania voters started focusing, during the final days of the Senate race, they saw an energized Wofford campaigning non-stop among ordinary people, a stark contrast with Thornburgh’s sporadic, too-formal appearances.