United States

‘GIVE US A CHANCE’

After two close presidential elections, both parties are trying to broaden the tent

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE August 29 2005
United States

‘GIVE US A CHANCE’

After two close presidential elections, both parties are trying to broaden the tent

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE August 29 2005

‘GIVE US A CHANCE’

United States

After two close presidential elections, both parties are trying to broaden the tent

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

KEN MEHLMAN ran the national campaign that edged George W. Bush back into the White House in November. In January, he became chairman of the Republican National Committee. He could have spent the summer gloating. Instead, he has embarked on what some might consider the political equivalent of bashing one’s head into a brick wall. Mehlman has been travelling the country courting African-Americans—who voted almost 90 per cent for Democrats in the last election. “Give us a chance,” he has implored no fewer than 17 black audiences this year, “and we’ll give you a choice.”

Howard Dean, the failed presidential contender, is on a similarly quixotic quest. In his new job as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the former Vermont governor is venturing into the heavily Republican South, learning to speak the traditionally Republican dialect of “values.” It all comes down to the fact that, after two close presidential elections, both parties have concluded that “mobilizing the base”—getting traditional supporters to the polls on election day— is not enough. But how to broaden the tent?

Beneath a colour-coded map of last November’s results in her Washington office, Tara Wall quantifies the challenge and the opportunity. Bush captured 11 per cent of black voters in 2004, up from eight per cent in 2000. But in several key battleground states, he broke into higher double digits. In crucial Ohio, which sealed his victory by just over 100,000 votes, he had 16 per cent of AfricanAmericans. “Had we not won those AfricanAmerican votes, we would not have won Ohio,” says Wall, who is black and works as Mehlman’s director of “outreach communications.” The thirtysomething former Democrat personifies Mehlman’s hopes. “When I grew up, I thought that’s what black folks did,” she says of joining the Democrats as a student. But, impressed by a Republican governor’s welfare reform policies in Michigan, she switched parties. The GOP better represents her values of “selfresponsibility,” as the granddaughter of a

single woman who raised five children while refusing welfare, says Wall.

Wall’s mother became a Republican after her pastor did, she adds, underscoring how black churches are a natural platform for Mehlman’s campaign. There he promotes Bush’s “faith-based initiative,” which allows religious groups that deliver social services access to government funds. “It always amazes me to hear liberals denying that faith should have a place in the public square,” he said in

THEY’VE realized

that getting traditional supporters to the voting booth on election day is no longer good enough

a speech to the National Association of Black Journalists eaçlier this month in Atlanta, noting that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

But Mehlman has other policies to promote, including Bush’s commitment to tripling American aid to Africa. “It’s a pleasant surprise, given that as a candidate back in 2000 he indicated that Africa did not have any strategic importance to the U.S.,” says Leonard Robinson, president of the National Summit on Africa and one of several Africa activists invited to a private meeting with the President last month. “I don’t think it’s smoke and mirrors.” Nor is the fact that Bush has compiled the most ethnically diverse cabinet in American history. Then there are the low-profile but precisely targeted Republican initiatives in Congress, such as bills aimed at solving the problems of sickle-cell anemia and strokes among blacks.

The Republican project is more than

United States I >

outreach, it is inclusion, insists Mehlman, who has dozens more African-American events on his agenda. “Outreach is when you show up to ask for the vote four weeks before the election,” he told the journalists’ group. “I’m here four years before the next presidential election asking for your help.” He speaks at length about his grandfather, a Baltimore grocer who grew up poor and, as a matter of conscience, joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (The NAACP, which has criticized Bush, gave Mehlman a standing ovation last month.) He segues into the proud parts of the GOP’s record on race relations. “Our party was founded to eliminate slavery, and our first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator,” he says. It was a Republican president, he adds, Dwight Eisenhower, who sent soldiers to integrate a school in Little Rock—while a Democratic governor blocked the schoolhouse door. In an apology that made national headlines, Mehlman condemned his own party for “trying to benefit politically from racial polarization” in more recent decades.

Meanwhile, back in the red states, Dean is also fighting hard to be heard. He has concluded the party can no longer afford to write off places like Mississippi and Alabama, nor can it continue to rely on third party interest groups and labour unions to do its grassroots organizing. Dean has begun a campaign to set up an army of paid staffers in every single precinct in the nation (the national party has to date pledged $3.5 mil-

lion to 25 state organizations). But Democrats need more than organization—they need a message. And Dean wants them to wrest the language of values from the other side. “It is a moral value to make sure that schools have the resources they need to function properly, and for all Americans to have access to quality health care,” explains his spokesman, Joshua Earnest.

The script is still being written—and not all by Dean. Some Democratic officeholders are targeting a values message at

THE HOPE ¡s that,

eventually, ‘someone will hear something they haven’t heard before and take another look’

parents, who make up 28 per cent of the electorate. They may have voted Democrat in their youth, but begin to trickle away once the kids arrive. Last November, married parents favored Bush over John Kerry by nearly 20 percentage points—59 per cent to 40 per cent. In 2000, Bush took them by 15 points over Al Gore—although Bill Clinton, who talked about their issues, managed to win them in 1996.

Call them the Madonna conservatives. Like the pop singer’s transformation from raunchy sex symbol to prim children’s author, these “stage-of-life conservatives” worry about teaching their kids values and

protecting them from Internet pornography and hyper-violent video games, says Barbara Whitehead, a Democratic adviser and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. She has been urging Democrats not to neglect them. “Republicans have been extremely successful in portraying us as amoral, sexualizing elitists who are anti-God, anti-family and anti-heartland values,” she recently told a conference of the Democratic Leadership Council. “And we’ve done very little to change this view.” She is advising Democrats to reframe the issue in “progressive” terms: protecting children from unscrupulous corporations. “You target those big corporate forces that are making money off of kids,” she says, urging a strategy of “naming names, identifying marketers, corporate interests, major lobbying groups who are trying to go over the heads of parents.”

Some Democrats are embracing the approach. Senator Hillary Clinton of New York is preparing legislation to block the sale of violent games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to minors. Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas is pushing a bill to force all porn sites to screen out kids, and to levy a 25-percent tax on the industry. Democratic mayors and governors are trying similar tactics.

Lor now, both parties may be talking in the wilderness. But they are betting that if they speak loudly and frequently enough, “somebody there will hear something they haven’t heard before and take another look,” as Wall says. “That’s the goal.” M