Al Gore, race-baiter

The vice president uses a time-honored strategy of scaring voters under the big tent.

Published January 18, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

During a recent Democratic presidential debate at the University of New Hampshire, Bill Bradley was loose, relaxed and even funny throughout much of the evening. Then moderator Peter Jennings asked him to name the one issue on which he thought Al Gore had most grossly distorted his record. Bradley suddenly got serious.

"The one that was most particularly offensive to me was when he said in this campaign that I was going to hurt African-Americans [and] Latinos with the health care program that I have offered. To say to me who's had the deep commitment to the issue of racial unity in this country since I started in politics that I would go out and hurt African-Americans and Latinos, consciously, as a part of a policy, I think really offended me."

Gore didn't back down. Paraphrasing Harry Truman, Gore told the audience, "'I'm not giving him hell. I'm just telling the truth and he thinks it's hell. Now, I didn't say any of the things you heard." But Gore, of course, did say them. "Any plan that tears down Medicaid leaves African-Americans and Latinos out in the cold," he told an audience in California. "It means it has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans and Latinos."

Bradley is a staunch, unapologetic defender of old-style racial preferences. The ex-NBA star says in every stump speech and nearly every interview that promoting "racial unity" is the main reason he is running for president. Bradley points to the debates over passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the seminal event in his political life.

Throughout his career in the Senate Bradley spoke repeatedly and passionately about racial problems in America. Shortly after the Rodney King verdict came down, Bradley delivered an eloquent floor speech in which he rapped a pencil on the podium 51 times to draw attention to the savage beating. He voted against the nomination of Clarence Thomas at least in part because he was worried about now-Justice Thomas' views on civil rights law. In an August speech in Harlem, where he met with controversial black leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, Bradley went event further. "Race relations," he said, "is not for me a political position. It's who I am. It's what I believe. It's what I care about most."

If Al Gore is willing to attack the civil rights credentials of Bill Bradley -- whose sincerity is difficult to question -- what does this portend for the general election campaign, when he will presumably face a Republican opponent who actually disagrees with him fundamentally on race issues?

The reason Gore is suddenly attacking Bradley on race is that the vice president and his campaign team see Southern black voters as the key to slowing any momentum Bradley might gain with a respectable showing in the Iowa caucuses and a win in New Hampshire. There is reason to believe they are right. According to polls, minority voters, particularly blacks, know and support Gore over Bradley by a wide margin.

Bradley's now-distant work in the Senate is no match for fresh memories of the Clinton administration's seven-year, relatively liberal record of race-conscious governance. Gore is counting on Southern blacks, who make up some 40 percent of Democratic primary voters in the South, to serve as an anti-Bradley "firewall." Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile confirmed this strategy with remarkable candor in a November interview with the Washington Post.

"The four pillars of the Democratic Party are African-Americans, labor, women and what I call ethnic minorities," Brazile told Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly. "Having the support of African-Americans will enable Al Gore to lock down the nomination and begin to take on the Republican nominee."

But judging from Brazile's much-publicized smears of the country's most prominent black Republicans last week, the vice president and his team can't even wait until the nomination has been decided to begin their attacks on Republicans. "Republicans bring out Colin Powell and J.C. Watts because they have no program, no policy," she said in an interview with "They play that game because they have no other game. They have no love and no joy. They'd rather take pictures with black children than feed them."

Brazile's remarks drew strong responses from both Watts and Powell. In a letter to the vice president, Watts called the comments "deeply offensive" and "racist." Powell's missive was equally indignant. "I am disappointed and offended by Ms. Donna Brazile's remarks concerning me. We can debate and disagree over programs and approaches, but let's not start the new century by playing the polarizing race card," Powell wrote.

The latest Brazile outrage comes a little more than a month after she rather famously told the Washington Post that in her role as campaign manager she would not let the "white-boys" win. "A white-boy attitude" she explained, "is 'I must exclude, denigrate, and leave behind.'"

Speaking on the Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" the day after the story broke, Gore adviser Peter Fenn offered a flimsy defense of Brazile's comments on Watts and Powell. "What Donna was saying, what she ..." he sputtered, "her point was to be inclusive rather than exclusive." It's unclear whether the inclusive part was the "no love and no joy" quip or the "rather take pictures with black children than feed them" comment, but what is clear is that there must be more than one definition of "inclusive."

Asked about Brazile's comments and Powell's letter, Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane refused to apologize for Brazile and even praised her on-the-job performance. "General Powell is a great American. He has contributed a lot to this country," Lehane told CNN. "Donna Brazile is doing a great job as campaign manager."

Although there appears to be some confusion among the Gore team about what, exactly, Brazile meant, the reporter who interviewed Brazile says she knew precisely what she was saying. "I mean, she was very conscious in the wording that she used. She knew exactly what she was doing," said Paul Alexander on the television show "Hardball." "I put the request in to her in writing beforehand and told her I wanted to talk about race. So the way I look at this is that she is essentially saying this is going to be a key issue that will be debated throughout the presidential campaign this year."

Monday, when "Today" show host Katie Couric asked him whether he agreed with Brazile's comments, Gore refused even to offer one word of criticism of his campaign manager. "Well," he said, "I agree that the Republican Party has not had an agenda that has been effective in lifting up the poor. The disadvantaged and those who are African-American in our nation are disproportionately likely to be in those categories," he said, echoing his critiques of the Bradley health care proposal, "and I am proud that my political party has always been in the forefront of trying to end discrimination. I regretted the way [Powell] heard Donna's comments. She does a fantastic job."

If Donna Brazile is doing a "fantastic job," Democrats in 1998 were exceptional, outstanding, superior. Democrats race-baited with relative impunity in 1998. (With the notable exceptions of the Weekly Standard's Matt Labash, the Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby and National Journal's Stuart Taylor, few journalists reported or commented on this phenomenon.) And political observers throughout the country cited minority turnout as a crucial factor in the Democrats' ability to buck historical trends, shock pundits and frustrate Republicans by gaining seats in an off-year election with their own party in control of the White House.

In one such effort, designed to increase turnout for incumbent Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, Democratic Rep. Albert Wynn sent several thousand constituents a direct mail piece with photographs of police dogs attacking blacks in the pre-integration South. In Illinois, Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun ran a television advertisement that superimposed pictures of her opponent -- lifelong Illinois resident Peter Fitzgerald -- over the Confederate flag in a rather absurd attempt to paint him as a friend of Dixie. Democrats in Missouri warned in a radio ad aired on black radio stations that not voting was tantamount to allowing "another church to explode ... another cross to burn."

Nationally, the Democrats' strategy was fairly transparent, as President Clinton and Vice President Gore spent much of their time in the days immediately preceding the election with minority interest groups, in black churches and on minority-owned media. The president tape-recorded a get-out-the-vote telephone message that went to minority households throughout the country. On Election Day, the White House let it be known that Hillary Clinton was watching the movie version of Toni Morrison's "Beloved," which stars Oprah Winfrey.

President Clinton even warned of coming GOP attempts to "intimidate" minority voters to keep them away from the polls, challenging Republicans to "stand up and put a stop to it ... For the last several elections there have been examples in various states of Republicans either actually or threatening to try to intimidate or try to invalidate the votes of African-Americans in precincts that are overwhelmingly African-American -- mostly places where they think it might change the outcome of the election," Clinton said on a radio network with predominantly minority listeners.

Without citing specific incidents, Clinton called on Republicans to stop using additional law enforcement at polling places to "just look at people when they go to vote, or photographing them or doing videotapes when they go vote or otherwise trying to scare them off." The Republican National Committee protested, calling on Clinton to retract his statements unless he could prove that they were true. Clinton refused.

The president eventually called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate such practices, and Attorney General Janet Reno made a public statement saying voter intimidation would not be tolerated.

Back in Maryland, the Glendening campaign ran an ad suggesting that his opponent, Republican Ellen Sauerbrey, was anti-minority. Based on Sauerbrey's vote on a 1992 bill to determine the state's role in trying sexual harassment cases, Glendening charged that Sauerbrey had a civil rights record "to be ashamed of." (Interestingly, the bill was killed by Democrats.) The ad was so outrageous that prominent black Democrats, including Glendening supporters, distanced themselves from its use.

Republicans, of course, are far from blameless when it comes to employing shameful divide-and-conquer campaign strategies. GOP strategist Ed Rollins' admission of using "walking around money" in the 1993 gubernatorial race in New Jersey to suppress the black vote, comes to mind as a rather egregious example of disgusting racial politics. (Rollins later claimed that he hadn't used money for that purpose, but that he still believes "someone" did.) And the 1972 Nixon campaign team's consideration of helping finance a Jesse Jackson presidential bid to siphon-off black McGovern voters, should be remembered as one of the most disgraceful political moments in the past century.

But Democrats show no sign of relenting. This week, the DNC sent a representative to the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in San Jose, Calif., where the GOP announced its plans to recruit Hispanic voters. Democrat Loretta Sanchez, who was elected to Congress in 1996 and now serves as DNC co-chair, showed up at the event to scold Republicans. It appears from her remarks in a letter to RNC head Jim Nicholson that Sanchez may have gotten her talking points from Brazile. "We want to let you know that as elected officials, we will rally behind the Latino community and not allow Latinos to be used as props at events or as photo opportunities by your presidential candidates during this election cycle."

Sanchez then took a page from the 1998 DNC playbook. "The best way to help the Hispanic community is to speak out loud and clear against attempts to suppress Hispanic participation in this election cycle, and to pass laws which help our community realize and share in the opportunities of the strongest economy in a generation."

If these attacks on Republicans offer a sneak preview of the campaign to come, recent ads run by the Gore campaign reveal even more of the vice president's race-focused strategy. As the 1999 session of Congress came to a close, the Senate considered two controversial nominations: ex-Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun's appointment to become U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White's appointment to the federal bench. Both nominees are black; White was rejected and Moseley-Braun was eventually approved.

To a certain extent, both nominations were disputed for political reasons, and arguments can be raised that such politicking shouldn't block nominees. But Democrats weren't content to base their attacks solely on politics, quickly seizing on the nominees' race to cast Republicans as villains. "The array of anti-minority sentiment expressed almost each week now by Republicans is historic," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Vermont Sen. Pat Leahy asked if Republicans have a "color test on nominations."

Gore, too, quickly turned the nomination battles into a political issue. Within weeks of the Senate votes, and immediately before the Thanksgiving holiday, the Gore campaign began running ads nationwide on American Urban Radio Network touting Gore's defense of the black nominees.

"Al Gore has always been there for us," says one woman, "whether it's been fighting to rebuild our crumbling schools or to make sure affirmative action stays strong."

"Just this month, Al Gore stood up to the Republicans and fought to make sure Carol Moseley-Braun got her appointment as ambassador," says a second woman.

"Just the way he's fighting to make sure the Republicans don't stop our black nominees from becoming judges," says the first. Running these ads a year before the 2000 general election makes clear something Gore has said explicitly: that "affirmative action is one of the biggest controversies in the election."

If Gore's analysis is right, this might explain why he refused to fire -- or even criticize -- Donna Brazile. As a Gore adviser told ABC's John Cochran, removing Brazile "would bring down the wrath of African-American voters on Gore." Another plausible explanation, however, is that Gore simply wanted to avoid what would have been rather blatant hypocrisy, as Gore himself is no stranger to incendiary rhetoric.

In July, Gore gave a speech to Unity '99 -- a gathering of journalists, mostly minorities -- in which he trotted out one of his favorite racial analogies. Critics of affirmative action, he argues, "use 'colorblind' in the way some people use a duck blind. They hide behind it and hope no one will notice." As the Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby and others have asked after parsing Gore's comparison: Does Gore mean to suggest that Republicans want to shoot blacks?

As the 2000 election nears, a few things are not in dispute. The country will be better off having an enlightened discussion of the myriad political issues that might fall under the heading "race relations." American democracy is more representative and more legitimate when voters -- minority and non-minority -- go to the polls. And many of the tactics Democrats have employed in recent years are nothing more than effective ways of mobilizing Democratic minority voters.

But if the Gore campaign and Democrats nationally continue their recent use of race in such reprehensible ways, the vice president may spend the last few days of the election hoping that a prediction he made last summer does not come true. "If a candidate wants to divide this nation instead of uniting it, if a candidate deals with fear instead of hope, they will pay at the ballot box."

By S. Forester Hayes

. Forester Hayes became a chilehead 10 years ago after a failed sinus surgery, and has no trouble breathing today. He last wrote for Salon about Al Gore and racial politics.

MORE FROM S. Forester Hayes

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