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Thanks to John Pritchett

By David Podvin

When George W. Bush appointed segregationist Charles Pickering to a federal appeals court just one day after laying a wreath at the grave of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he presented the Democratic Party with a golden opportunity to rectify the mistake that was so costly two years ago. The Democrats lost the 2002 congressional elections in large part because they neglected the concerns of black voters who are essential to the party’s success. On June 30, 2002, MakeThemAccountable warned that, despite public opinion polls showing the Democrats were ahead, the fall campaign was shaping up to be a disaster:

The Democrats better not try to sit on their irrelevant lead in the polls, or their most faithful constituency will repay betrayal with apathy. Prior to the election, the Democratic Party must redeem itself with African Americans by doing something more than merely citing the wickedness of Republicans. You can only cynically manipulate people so many times before the tactic loses its charm. The Florida election heist was a traumatic event for blacks. Polls indicate diminishing enthusiasm on their part for participating in a system where one side attacks them while the other side fails to defend them.

Morale among black voters is worse today than it was in 2002. For three years, African Americans have watched Senate Democrats defer to the man who cheated his way into the White House by using Jim Crow tactics. Now, thanks to Bush brazenly misusing Dr. King’s birthday as an occasion to throw red meat to rednecks, Democratic politicians have been given the chance to generate the kind of enthusiasm that wins elections.

This is a Newt Gingrich moment. Gingrich long advocated that Republicans could take control of Congress only by voicing the concerns of the angry white males who comprised the party’s base. After waiting impatiently for years as the entrenched leadership passively resigned itself to perpetual minority status, Gingrich finally violated protocol and began usurping the authority of feeble Minority Leader Bob Michel. Gingrich did not wait for someone to grant him power – he seized it, and because the party’s rank and file was desperate for change, the hostile takeover worked.

Like Michel, Tom Daschle is a weak leader, and rank and file Democrats are desperate for change. This is the optimal time for a dissident in the Senate Democratic Caucus to rise up and cast Daschle aside. A Democratic senator should convene a press conference attended by Chairman Terry McAuliffe and all the party’s presidential candidates to condemn Bush for his latest homage to the Confederacy. They should jointly announce that the party will not fund the campaign of any Senate Democrat who votes to confirm a Bush judicial appointment as long as Pickering remains on the bench.

This coup would work in favor of all concerned. The dissident Democratic senator would doubtlessly alienate his feckless colleagues who have grown comfortable in their roles as Republican foils, but would also become a national figure and hero to millions of liberals yearning for a champion. Terry McAuliffe is a Bill Clinton appointee in a party apparatus that is likely to be dominated in the near future by Howard Dean appointees; in order to have any chance of keeping his job, McAuliffe must distance himself from the Washington establishment.

And the prospective nominees would have both a positive and a negative motivation for participating in a collective denunciation of Bush: on the plus side, this event would gratify the African American base and assure an unprecedented turnout of black voters in November. Conversely, the failure of a Democratic candidate to appear at such a press conference would guarantee his demise in the primaries.

Given the importance of the black vote to Democrats, it would take a very brave Democratic senator to object publicly to the revolt, and bravery has not been the recent hallmark of Democratic senators.

If the Democrats were to implement this plan, Daschle would be publicly humiliated and probably lose his bid for reelection in conservative South Dakota. However, having secured the base ten months before the general election, the party would be free to focus its limited resources on courting the swing voters who are necessary to reclaim the White House. If losing Tom Daschle is the cost of beating George Bush, it will be the best political trade of all time. As a bonus, a big African American turnout will help to defeat other conservatives nationwide.

The fear among Democrats has always been that standing up for the black community would cost the party more support than it would gain. The cynical calculation is that Democrats already receive a huge percentage of African American votes, which theoretically makes it shrewd to target suburban women and the elderly by implicitly reassuring them the party is not too “pro-black”. The strategy has proven to be as unsuccessful as it is immoral. It has also been stupid: most white racists long ago disappeared into the waiting arms of the GOP.

The juxtaposition of Bush visiting Dr. King’s tomb on Thursday and appointing a racist to the courts on Friday is helpful in debunking the myth of “compassionate conservatism”. The Democratic message in 2004 should be that Bush’s words and his actions do not match: he talks nice, but he acts rotten. By screaming bloody murder at his debasement of the King holiday, Democrats would be emphasizing to independent voters that Bush is a fraud whose compassion is a rhetorical artifice.

The aggressive approach also addresses the public perception that Democrats are weak. During a time of terrorist threat, Americans prioritize strong leadership above all else. In 2002, when the image of the Republican Party was the swaggering Bush and the personification of the Democratic Party was the genuflecting Daschle, the outcome was inevitable. If Democrats want to win the trust (and the votes) of the public, they must demonstrate strength by taking a tough stand on something prior to the election.

Bush gave that something to them on Friday. He provided Democrats with the chance to energize their base of support, lay the foundation for an essential attack on his character, appeal to swing voters, and demonstrate the backbone necessary to govern during dangerous times. What remains to be seen is whether the Democratic Party will recognize the opportunity and summon the resolve to act upon it.

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Last changed: December 13, 2009