With national polls already picking up the split between white and black Americans’ views over the handling of Hurricane Katrina, it’s not too soon to begin asking how the obligatory post-Katrina debate over “race and poverty” will affect Hillary’s 2008 electoral calculus.
Indeed, if campaign history teaches us anything, it is that presidential candidates seldom deviate from tactics used successfully in their past campaign. If true, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton just might have found herself a new “Sister Souljah” in Kanye West. After all, it was Team Clinton who, so many years ago, taught the Democrat party how to win back disaffected white, blue-collar voters, while maintaining its vice-like grip on nine out of ten black voters. A dirty secret within the Democrat party, the history of the Democrat race-based voting strategy is an important one, riddled with critical implications for 2008.
In 1985, pollster Stanley Greenberg–a Harvard Ph.D. who taught Marxist theory at Yale and is also the husband of liberal Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut–was asked by the Democratic party of Michigan and the United Auto Workers to conduct a study to determine why Walter Mondale had received such anemic support against Ronald Reagan in Macomb County, a Detroit suburb. According to Greenberg, party officials had told him: “Use whatever techniques you need but get to the bottom of Ronald Reagan’s thrust into the heart of working America.” Hence, Greenberg set out to dissect the electoral anatomy of the “Reagan Democrats” living in Macomb County.
The demographic makeup of Macomb County held (and continues to hold) important electoral implications. Roughly 97 percent of Macomb’s 700,000 residents were Catholic Caucasians. At the time of Greenberg’s study the average annual income in the area was $24,000. What’s more, before Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Macomb had been the most Democratic suburb in the entire nation. By 1985, however, Greenberg says “Macomb was now the national home of Reagan Democrats and the working material for a new American political alignment.” According to Eleanor Clift and the late Tom Brazaitis, Greenberg’s series of focus groups conducted in the area did not bode well for Democrats:
Greenberg’s study of Macomb concluded that many of its white, blue collar voters felt abandoned by a Democratic Party that they perceived as caught up in the civil rights movement and catering to the interests of minorities….Part of his critique was that the Democratic Party did not identify with, and did not really respect, working-class culture….Democrats had to recognize that the uproar over busing, for example, was not just racism; people felt, justifiably, that their values and their neighborhoods were being threatened.
The Los Angeles Times book reviewer, William Greider, put it another way, “Greenberg’s basic formulation for fixing the Democratic Party is…Democrats need to get some distance from black people and the poor, so the angry white guys will like them again.” Greider then clarified that, “Naturally, he does not put it quite that crassly.”
When the pollster was asked to present his findings to party officials in Washington, D.C., prominent members like Paul Kirk, then-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, interpreted Greenberg’s strategic prescriptions much as Greider had. Said Kirk, “I found the conclusions inflammatory that what Democrats have to do is pay less attention to minorities.” While many in the Democratic leadership were angered by Greenberg’s campaign advice on how to win back members of “the forgotten middle class,” a young Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton found pragmatic value, not vitriol, in Greenberg’s findings.
Then-Governor Bill Clinton, one of the founding members of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)–the group of moderate Democrats who had organized in the aftermath of Reagan’s 1984 landslide in an attempt to change the Democratic party’s image–latched on to Greenberg’s findings The notion that members of the middle class were frustrated with the Democrats attentiveness to minorities at what they believed was their own expense seemed to embody a message that could help win back disaffected members of the party. Hence, during then Governor Bill Clinton’s 1990 bid for reelection the embattled incumbent looked to Greenberg to conduct focus groups in an effort to devise a message that would resonate with Arkansas voters. Greenberg’s pivotal role in creating the theme, “Don’t turn the clock back” opened the door for Greenberg to replace Clinton’s longtime pollster Dick Morris. The trick, however, stayed with Clinton and became the basis for his denunciation of cop-killer rapper extraordinaire, Sister Souljah. At a Rainbow-PUSH Coalition event, Clinton humiliated Jesse Jackson when he used the event as a backdrop to condemn gangsta rap’s violence-filled messages.
Fast forward to today and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
While Democrats secretly cheer on the racially charged demagoguery ushered forth from the usual suspects, like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the newly anointed race baiter, Kanye West, Hillary and the rest of Team Clinton are too shrewd to join in the fray. Even as Howard Dean is busy fanning the flames of racial divisiveness, Clinton and her inner circle know all too well the lessons learned in 1992. Indeed, voters should not be surprised if today’s Kanye West ends up becoming the new “Sister Souljah” who became the pivot point in a Clinton triangulation to disassociate with the radical race baiters of the Democrat Left.
Regardless, Hillary’s shrewdness on maters of identity politics will preclude her from being linked in any way to the dismissive attitude toward the lawlessness, looting, raping, and murdering committed in Katrina’s aftermath. While any racial triangulation will likely come after the midterm elections and well into her official bid for the White House, one thing is sure: Hillary will find a “Sister Souljah” prior to November 2008. The cynical, dirty Democrat secret on race requires that they use black voters to deliver a 90-percent base of electoral support while simultaneously disassociating themselves from negative black stereotypes by co-opting a Republican message of independence, self-reliance, and individual responsibility–all the while espousing policies that are antithetical to such virtues.
Should Kanye West receive an invitation to attend a Rainbow/Push Coalition event with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, he would be well advised to think twice. Just ask Sister Souljah.
–Wynton C. Hall is the co-author (with Dick Wirthlin) of The Greatest Communicator: What Ronald Reagan Taught Me about Politics, Leadership, and Life. He is currently co-authoring (with Caspar Weinberger) Home of the Brave: Remembering the Unsung Heroes in the War on Terror.