Losing Their Religion
Trouble in the Democrat's urban laboratory.


Henry Payne

–Tuesday’s good news on consumer confidence and durable goods orders is surely bad news for the nine Democrats trying to convince America that George Bush should be fired as America’s CEO. But, as this week’s Detroit Democratic debate and Senate fuel-economy vote highlight, the Democratic party may have deeper political problems in the blue-collar, urban industrial heartland they have long taken for granted. As evidenced by 2000, Democrats rely on heavy turnout from unions and minorities in cities like Detroit to remain competitive. But that turnout needs a reason.

In short, the failure of Democratic urban and auto policy in Detroit is proof that Democrats have lost touch with their core constituencies–constituencies who are now turning for solutions to the political Right.

On America’s cities. Run by Democrats’ core union and activist African-American constituencies, Detroit is a living laboratory of the party’s liberal agenda. Ruled by Democrats (a Republican has not served in city government since the late 1970s) in a majority-Democrat state, Detroit boasts a living-wage law, strict racial hiring quotas, a public-school system with one of the nation’s highest per pupil expenditures, a generous welfare system, a highly paid union workforce, high tax rates, and city services delivered entirely by the public sector.

This Democratic experiment, however, has stimulated a growth of pathogens so noxious that Detroit has become a national symbol of urban blight. Not surprisingly then, the devastated city outside was rarely mentioned inside the Fox Theater during the 90-minute debate.

The Democratic candidates’ lack of concern for the human pain beyond their tinted windows is powerful evidence–little noticed by the national media (and certainly not by the panel of liberal journalists in Sunday’s debate)–that the Democratic party has ceded the compassion label.

Sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and billed as a forum for urban issues, the debate was shockingly devoid of answers–let alone recognition–for the problems that afflict this city: a 47 percent functional illiteracy rate; calcified city services and crime rates that have driven out half the city’s population in 40 years; an illegitimacy rate that condemns 70 percent of the city’s children to single-parent homes, a leading indicator of poverty.

Granted, the media panel (PBS’s Gwen Ifill, Fox News’s Carl Cameron, and local Fox anchor Huel Perkins) that controlled the evening’s agenda, launched the debate with a barrage of foreign-policy questions about Iraq and never really tried to connect the candidates to urban issues.

On Arab immigrants. But even the Iraq answers displayed a notable lack of concern for Detroit’s Arab population–the largest in the world outside of the Middle East–which has cheered America’s occupation of Iraq.

When Saddam Hussein’s government collapsed in March, hundreds of Detroit-area Arabs–most of them Shiites who had fled Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime–flooded the streets here to celebrate their homeland’s liberation. In the 45 minutes of debate time allotted to Iraq, not one of the nine candidates expressed compassion for these people. Instead, in a breathtaking show of subservience to the party’s far left wing, seven of the nine candidates said they would reject the Bush administration’s request for $87 billion to rebuild Iraq and instead bring America’s troops home–thus opening the door for Saddam’s return to power and the certain Shiite bloodbath that would follow.

Displaying the liberal bias prevalent among political journalists, panelist Perkins asked Sen. John Edwards: “What would you do to get us out of this (Iraq) mess?” Edwards reply spoke for most of the candidates–and the 3,000 activists in attendance–when he said: “For me to vote yes on $87 billion would be to give this president a blank check. I won’t do that.”

Apparently, he would prefer a blank check to Saddam Hussein to renew his war on Detroit’s Shiite relatives back in Iraq.

On auto manufacturing jobs. This week, the United Auto Workers backed Senate Republicans in rejecting Democratic calls to raise the federal fuel economy standard (the so-called CAF… rule) as part of the broader energy bill working its way through Congress. Since its adoption in the late 1970s, CAFE has resulted in thousands of unemployed Detroit workers. As recounted by New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher in his recent book on the industry, High and Mighty: “Japanese automakers mostly made small cars then, so Detroit bore the brunt of the new rules….Higher gas-mileage standards contributed to the loss of thousands of jobs in the early 1980s.”

Rather than addressing this mistake, all nine candidates today support a tightening of CAFE laws to include sport utility vehicles–one of the few segments where Detroit remains a market leader.

On schools. Education, consistently the number one public-policy concern of voters, received short shrift Sunday night.

Al Sharpton’s comment that “we have a president who would send money to Iraq but none to the schools of Detroit” was typical of the sound-bite prescriptions for education reform. In fact, Detroit has been receiving plenty of fiscal aid for its schools–aid met by fierce resistance from Michigan’s Democratic establishment.

In a story that has dominated Detroit politics this fall, Republican asphalt-magnate Robert Thompson’s charitable contribution of $200 million–$200 million!–to the city to build charter schools was rejected by Detroit’s Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm (neither of whom send their own children to public schools). Desperate to escape Detroit’s public system, a reported 14,000 Detroiters are presently on waiting lists for the city’s existing charter schools, yet Democratic leaders buckled to teacher-union demands to refuse the $200 million (so much for Sen. John Kerry’s Sunday message: “We need to stand up against all special interests”).

So stunning was this lack of compassion for Detroit’s children, that the party was denounced on the front page by the city’s left-wing paper, the Detroit Free Press.

In Sunday’s debate the issue of charters was never raised by either the candidates or the media panel.

On welfare. Nor was the issue of welfare reform. Perhaps the single most important public-policy development of the last decade, welfare changes initiated by Michigan’s Republican Gov. John Engler–and federalized by a Republican U.S. Congress in 1996–have finally reversed the stubbornly high welfare rolls of Detroit and other urban areas around the country. Today, thousands of Detroiters have jobs thanks to these bold reforms–reforms bitterly opposed by Democrats at both the state and federal levels.

Indeed, remedies for Detroit’s ills now come almost exclusively from the right. Were it not for the contributions of conservatives and corporations–the two constituencies the debating Democrats ritualistically condemned–Detroit would be even worse off today. In addition to welfare reform, Governor Engler launched a series of education fixes and tax reductions that have made the city more economically viable. Meanwhile, Fortune 500 companies General Motors and Compuware, concerned that Detroit’s image is damaging their ability to recruit, have relocated their headquarters to downtown, bringing millions of dollars in human and investment capital to the city center.

The Democrats all had a chance to criticize the president on his “tax cuts for rich corporations.” But in an industrial state still heavily dependent on manufacturing (17,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in three years), Bush’s tax cuts have been an engine of hope. Robert Phillips, president of Detroit’s Beaver Aerospace, for example, recently told the Detroit News: “We’re a small business, and we, like other small businesses, will benefit from the new policies under Bush, namely tax cuts and new depreciation rules that will enable Beaver to invest more in its plant.”

The Democrats’ hounding of President Bush on Iraq and the economy are problematic at best. If both continue to improve, their election strategy will become ever more dependent on rousing the union and black vote. But as Detroit shows, Democrats’ urban policy has been an unmitigated disaster. As a new generation awakens to the reality that Democrats have become a regressive–not progressive–influence, this last bastion of party rule looks more vulnerable than ever.

Henry Payne is a Detroit freelance writer. He is also editorial cartoonist for The Detroit News.