Cracks in the base

As Lieberman smacks Dean on Israel and Sharpton says Democrats neglect blacks, the party could wind up squabbling over how to maintain its dominance with Jews and African-Americans.

By Alexander Bolton

Published September 10, 2003 9:50PM (EDT)

At breakfast with reporters in Washington Wednesday morning, Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe wanted to talk about the first official Democratic debate in Albuquerque, N.M., which took place almost a week ago. He gushed that the winner was the Democratic National Committee, because with its focus on Hispanics -- it was sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- it positioned Democrats to woo that growing, crucial voting bloc next November.

Strangely, McAuliffe didn't want to talk much about the debate held just the night before in Baltimore, sponsored by Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus. If the Albuquerque debate was a win for the DNC, the second may have been a loss. It revealed some of the party's weaknesses, in particular cracks in the alliance with pro-Israel Jews, and strained ties with African-Americans under 40. Maybe it's appropriate the debate was cosponsored by Fox News, which many Democrats lambaste for being a mouthpiece for conservative viewpoints and the Republican Party.

Tuesday's debate, the first ever sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, started off well enough for the Democrats, with the candidates using the first round of questions to bash President Bush's foreign policy. But things took a tough turn when Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut accused Vermont Gov. Howard Dean of one of Bush's biggest sins, imperiling the nation's critical alliances, in this case American backing of Israel.

The testy sniping that ensued created the biggest news splash of the debate and headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post the next day. After two debates in a week, the feud between Dean and Lieberman, which Lieberman originated out of a political need to define his candidacy, has degenerated into a personal grudge match.

Lieberman attacked Dean for telling supporters in New Mexico last week that the U.S. should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Let me say to Governor Dean, he has said he wouldn't take sides, but then he has said Israel ought to get out of the West Bank and an enormous number of their settlements ought to be broken down. That's up to the parties in their negotiations, not for us to tell them."

Dean responded that he was disappointed by the attack because, after all, his position on Israel was the exact same as Bill Clinton's. Adding a goodie-two-shoes jab, after rebuking Lieberman for interrupting his response, Dean said: "It doesn't help to demagogue this issue. We're all Democrats. We need to beat George Bush so we can have peace in the Middle East." (But Dean's campaign staff created some inadvertent comedy with back-to-back post-debate press alerts, one headlined "Dean expresses need for Democratic unity," and the second bashing John Kerry and John Edwards for missing Senate votes on the "No Child Left Behind" bill.)

After the debate, an angry Lieberman insisted Dean was mischaracterizing Clinton's policy and called him "intemperate." Harsh words, indeed, coming from one of the most temperate (some say boring) candidates in the race.

The other memorable clash took place between former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and a longtime backbencher in the House, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who squared off against each other in the congressional debate over Iraq last fall.

Gephardt set himself up by recalling advice he gave President Bush on Iraq, and Kucinich skewered him by saying, "When you were standing there in the Rose Garden with the president and you were giving him advice, I wish that you would have told him no, because as our Democratic leader your position helped to inform mightily the direction of the war." It must have been a sweet moment for Kucinich who has led the antiwar movement in the House and who for years has taken a back seat to his former leader. Meanwhile Gephardt is finding that his role in authorizing the war in Iraq has been an impediment to courting Democratic activists in Iowa and New Hampshire.

So things are starting to heat up on the campaign trail. The conventional wisdom has been that it's hard to fuel animosities when nine people are crowded on stage to debate. But familiarity is breeding contempt, and each time the candidates get together, the rivalries grow sharper.

The other candidates were content to let Lieberman skirmish with Dean for them. In the final minutes of the debate, cameras rushed to a placard bearing Dean's name to wait for him to answer press questions on the debate. Clearly the broadcast media has no doubt about who the frontrunner is.

"Lieberman can set himself on fire to get attention, but we don't need to do that; we're going to be more cautious," said an aide to one of the other leading candidates.

But while the other candidates don't mind seeing Dean taken down a notch, painting him as unsympathetic to Israel could have consequences down the road, especially if done by the most prominent Jewish politician in the country. Right now Dean is the frontrunner to win the nomination -- of course circumstances could change -- but the solid allegiance of Jews and Jewish donors that the Democratic Party has traditionally enjoyed is showing signs of cracking over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Republicans have in the past sometimes tilted pro-Arab, at least partly because of the party's ties to oil interests, while Democrats have been reliably pro-Israel. But in recent years Democrats are perceived as leaning on Israeli leaders, while the Bush White House has mostly supported the tough policies of Ariel Sharon. And the president faces pressure on his right, led by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a conservative Christian who has been an unabashed cheerleader for Sharon and his use of tough tactics to fight terrorism. Earlier this summer DeLay declared himself "an Israeli at heart." Last year the president's brother Jeb held a pro-Israel rally with Ariel Sharon in South Florida, one of several such rallies held by conservatives or evangelical Christians in the last few years.

As a result, some GOP strategists have begun dreaming about luring more Jewish support by arguing that Republicans are stronger supporters of Israel. For at least a year the party has been waging an aggressive effort to attract Jewish donations, not so much because Republicans need the money -- President Bush's election campaign will likely have $250 million to spend in the spring -- but more in order to deny that money to Democrats.

Should Lieberman continue last night's line of attack, it could very well advance the Republican effort to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party and its pro-Israel supporters, and complicate Dean's fundraising next year should he prevail in the primary.

The debate also shone a spotlight on another trouble area for Democrats: the loosening bonds between the party and African-American supporters. Sharpton, who has a knack for the sound bite, told the mostly African-American audience, "I think we need to take the Democratic Party home to our daddies and discuss marriage or a breakup."

Addressing the party, Sharpton said, "We helped take you to the dance and you leave with right-wingers, you leave with people that you say are swing voters, you leave with people that are antithetical to our history and antithetical to our interests."

Democratic Party officials, including McAuliffe, have tried to downplay Sharpton's remarks as those of a rabble-rouser trying to attract attention, but they strike a chord with many longtime African-American supporters of the party.

"There's a perception that many of the issues of great importance to the African-American community get played out and not substantively supported throughout the process, that's what that's about," said Tony Harrison, an African-American, who describes himself as a troubleshooter for the Dean campaign.

Doug Thornell, the spokesman for Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said one of the reasons for sponsoring the debate was to discuss issues important to the African-American community that otherwise would be, by and large, ignored by the candidates.

Relations between the Black Caucus and the DNC reached a boiling point in June when the committee made and then aborted plans to fire 10 African-American staffers. Black lawmakers were also irate when they found out that the DNC had not signed a single contract with an African-American political consultant in 2002, and had only signed one as of mid-June in the current election cycle.

To ease the tensions, McAuliffe appointed Ben Johnson, a prominent African-American Democrat and donor, as a DNC deputy chairman.

But the Republican Party has also begun a concerted effort to win the allegiance of more African-Americans, as it has with Jews. In May, Republican officials invited 300 leaders from around the country to Washington to meet with them at an African-American Leadership Summit. Bush's trip to Africa in July was widely perceived as an effort to reach out to that community. Though African-Americans vote for Democrats by a nearly 9 to 1 margin now, and there is no chance the GOP could win the black vote, Republican operatives are hoping to peel away another 10 percent. They believe that even a modest shift in sympathies could have a major impact in 2004.

McAuliffe laughed at the suggestion that Republicans could ever appeal to African-American voters.

But Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign and heads the DNC's voting rights project, said the party cannot take it as a given that African-Americans, especially younger ones, will pull the lever for a Democrat when they show up to the polling booth.

African-Americans in their 30s and younger, she said, are no longer a "motivation target" -- in other words, voters who only need to be turned out to the polls. They are now a "persuasion target." Many African-Americans must hear compelling arguments for why they should support the Democratic Party.

"They don't have a partisan motivation," said Brazile, speaking of the younger generations. "The partisan divide for them has meant bickering between the two parties. My mother's generation saw a Democratic Party reaching out and having ideas and values that resonated in the community, issues such as equality, opportunity, justice. Everyone knew that Democrats stood for civil rights," she said. "This [younger] generation is looking for more jobs and economic opportunities. It's a whole different sort of priorities. The party cannot rely on past tactics to persuade them."

The black vote could have even greater importance thanks to the new Democratic primary schedule, which has placed more emphasis on the early contest in South Carolina, where African-Americans constitute nearly a third of Democratic primary voters. That may be why Lieberman declared that talking about race and fighting for civil rights will define his presidency. And it's probably why McAuliffe says the candidates have scheduled another debate on Oct. 26 that will be devoted exclusively to African-American issues. He's probably hoping he has more good news to talk about the day after that one than he did in Baltimore.

Alexander Bolton

Alexander Bolton writes for "The Hill" in Washington, D.C.

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Democratic Party Howard Dean Joe Lieberman John F. Kerry