Two political developments last week put intense pressure on the partisan gridlock that has continued to freeze policy in our nation's capital. The two events cut in quite different directions for the longer term, but together they point to an end of the gridlock in the near term. On Saturday, in the special Texas Senate race, the stunning 2-to-l victory of Kay Bailey Hutchinson was the coup de grace that finished off the energy tax component of President Clinton's economic package. Earlier in the week, the President's decision to pull the plug on the nomination of his Yale classmate, Lani Guinier, set up the potential for an end to the gridlock through party realignment. Conventional wisdom says the Texas race was the more important. In fact, the power play that left Ms. Guinier and the Black Caucus holding the bag was at least as significant, and probably more so.
What we see here is the revolutionary pivot point in the break-up of the old New Deal coalition that has defined the two parties since 1932. The most fragile element of the coalition is in fact the broad African-American community that has its power center in the Black Caucus of the Congress, 39 House members and one U.S. Senator. This key power bloc, which has been big enough to prevent the Republican Party from controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, is at a breakpoint as a result of the slapping around it endured last week at the hands of the white folks who control the party coalition. A year ago, remember, candidate Clinton "played his race card," essentially kicking Jesse Jackson down the party stairs to signal white voters on the relative unimportance of the black wing in the coalition. This was the Sister Souljah incident at Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. For a moment, it seemed Jackson would be able to lead his battered flock into the Perot campaign, but Perot's campaign manager, Ed Rollins, announced that Jackson was not welcome and that Clinton had been right to kick Jesse down the party stairs.
Now comes Lani Guinier, whose intellectual crime is to observe that in this two party system, each controlled by old white guys, the best that black political leadership can achieve is a table near the kitchen in the dining room of the white liberal plantation, or a table in the kitchen of the white conservative plantation. Her diagnosis is exactly right, of course. Her prescription, which is to change the mechanisms of power to give the black community a seat closer to the head table, makes sense inside the framework of the liberal agenda -- which is to have an elite committee of government wise men allocate power by overriding market decisions. The correct prescription, though, is to have more democracy, not less.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole made exactly this point on "Meet the Press" yesterday: "I certainly would say maybe Black Americans ought to start looking at competition, take a look at the Republican Party. Maybe it's not so much her prescription, but maybe the diagnosis. So, you know, I think many of her concerns could be settled by competition, not have 90 percent of Black Americans in one party." The argument is entirely valid, although Dole's formulation seems to suggest black Americans could improve their conditions by simply shifting to the GOP. The greater problem is that 90 percent of black America sees only empty seats in the GOP kitchen, and Dole thus far has said nothing about making room up front. Maybe he will.
The Texas Senate victory actually tempts Dole in the opposite direction. Ms. Hutchinson won with a campaign that appealed almost exclusively to white voters, i.e., instead of raising taxes, cut spending. This is the austerity formulation favored by Senator Phil Gramm, the other Texas Senator. The huge margin of victory for Hutchinson that emerged in the final days, though, was the result of massive apathy by black Democrats, who stayed at home rather than vote for a party that kicks its leaders down the party stairs. Hispanic voters moved closer to the GOP. Blacks did not.
Bob Dole can go in either direction as he now ponders budget negotiations with the White House. He is in a commanding position. He could take the Texas race as a sign of strength for the austerity wing of his party, and make a deal with the White House and Senator David Boren of Oklahoma --the Democratic maverick whose sole objective is now to kill the BTU tax. This would simply shift the equation to more spending cuts in the Senate version of the President's plan. This approach would further validate Lani Guinier's argument that there's no escape route. This would force the Black Caucus to consider voting as a bloc against the Senate-House conference report that would leave their constituents further behind than ever. Or, Dole could compete for the affections of the Black Caucus by offering a GOP growth alternative. The only option available is the plan of Fed Governor Wayne Angell, a Dole protege, which would raise revenue in a way that would clearly expand the economy, via indexing capital gains. This option would provide the Black Caucus a seat at the head table, which would cause dismay among the country club Republicans.
As a long-time leader of the austerity faction of the GOP, Dole would be more inclined in that direction. He is, though, unlike other leaders of the GOP's austerity faction, in that he has the deep respect of black intellectual and political leaders because of his flawless civil rights record. Country club Republicans, of the kind who dominated the Reagan Administration, advocated a "color blind" policy, which meant that blacks theoretically could get any seat in the club, as long as they could afford the fees. Dole has not been color blind in a world that is still not color blind. He is credited by the Black Caucus, for example, for the national celebration of Martin Luther King Day, as well as the extension of the Voting Rights Act that the Reagan Justice Department tried to kill.
One way or another, the gridlock will be broken, but the way Dole goes will heavily influence the outcome of the historic party realignment now underway. Forget the labels "liberal" and "conservative," as their very inadequacy is the reason a basic realignment is necessary. The parties will instead reflect the more basic human political terms, "optimist" and "pessimist." We all have strains within us of optimism and pessimism, and so too should the two political parties. One, though, has to be more optimistic as a matter of course, urging risk-taking, while the other remains "realistic," urging caution. Civilization advances on the margin. If the GOP is now ready after a sojourn of 60 years to again compete for the votes of black Americans, it could easily shear off another 20% of the younger, entrepreneurial black electorate in '94 and '96. This isn't possible, though, if Dole keeps the GOP on a zero-sum, tax-and-spend continuum.
These are thoughts actually at play in the deliberations of all the key political leaders back at work this week after their Memorial Day hiatus. President Clinton, who keeps finding himself between rocks and hard places, remains on a very painful learning curve. The experience over Lani Guinier was especially soul-searing, as he was forced to dance to the tune of Senators Kennedy and Metzenbaum, who privately called him to plead that he withdraw her nomination to spare them embarrassment, while keeping their own skirts clean in public. There are lynch mobs and there are hi-tech lynch mobs and there are remote-controlled lynch mobs. Our young President has seen just about every variety.
He hopes to get some help from David Gergen one of these days, and maybe he will, if Gergen can help broker a deal with the Republicans. He hopes he gets more help from Lloyd Bentsen than he has so far, and maybe he will, if Bentsen can help broker a deal with the Republicans. He even hopes he will get help from Bob Dole, who still talks as if he wants Bill Clinton to succeed, which I'm sure is the case. [On "Meet the Press" Dole said: "I think the President has a lot of time. I mean there are going to be ups and downs. President Bush, as I recall, was 82 percent after the Gulf crisis, and then the economy went south and he went with it. But President Clinton has a lot of time."]
The President has asked to meet with the Black Caucus, to woo them back, but the chairman, Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, who is clearly at least the intellectual equal of the President, turned a cold shoulder. Maybe late this week, he advised the White House, if his schedule and that of the other members permits. This exchange itself was an indication of the historic events unfolding around us every day. Mfume meant no disrespect, but he does mean to have the President understand that when he withdrew Lani Guinier's nomination, he proved her point. One way or another, the price of submission has gone up, as we shall soon see.