In the closing weeks of the political season, race once again has become a salient issue. With Democrats facing the prospect of grave losses on November 8, they are forced to play their race card. That is, they are doing whatever they can to encourage blacks to "vote their race." The race card for years has been a useful political trump for Democrats because Republicans have not known how to finesse it. Indeed, for 30 years, the GOP has been conceding the black vote to Democrats, making their candidates vulnerable to last-minute losses they could have otherwise avoided. It is, though, getting harder for the Democrats to play this card. The 60-year-old New Deal coalition is cracking with age as younger black voters worry of manipulation by the white Democratic power structure.
If the black vote cannot be energized to hit the ballot boxes on November 8, Democrats losses will mount even further, especially in statewide races where a big turnout of black voters can make the difference. In House races, the practice of concentrating the black vote in gerrymandered congressional districts makes turnout less important to Democrats. Still, in "guaranteeing" about 40 Democratic seats by this process, there are that many fewer black votes to weigh in with their 9-to-1 Democratic margins in the other 395 congressional districts. In 1986, for example, Democrats regained control of the Senate with a big turnout of the black vote -- energized by a dreadful GOP campaign that foreshadowed the Bush return to budget balancing as the party's primary goal.
* Suddenly, the news media is hyping a ponderous book of sociological quackery, "The Bell Curve," by Charles Murray, a conservative Republican with scholarly credentials. The book's bottom line is that on average the black race is inherently inferior because of genetics. Liberals, of course, use this as prima facie evidence that Republicans, on average, are racist. A decade ago, Murray's earlier book, "Losing Ground," made a solid case that the Great Society welfare rules were destroying the black family unit -- an argument first made nearly 30 years ago by a liberal Democrat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In combination, the logic of the first Murray book and the quackery of the second enable Democrats to alert black leaders in every precinct of every village and town that the GOP has developed a racist argument to take away their food stamps and welfare checks.
* In New York, suddenly the Democrats have decided that Bob Grant, a loudmouth conservative who has a long-running radio talk show with a vast audience, is a racist. Because he has been promoting the candidacies of George Pataki, who is running for governor against Mario Cuomo, and Chuck Haytaian, a New Jersey Republican who is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent liberal Frank Lautenberg, a movement is underway to infer that Pataki and Haytaian are closet racists. Jesse Jackson and a gaggle of black ministers are running thither and yon demanding that Pataki and Haytaian apologize for having appeared on the Grant show and swear that forever more they will boycott it. In a TV debate Tuesday night, Lautenberg bashed Haytaian for his refusal to do so. (Millionaire Lautenberg, an old-fashioned limousine liberal, has been horrified that Haytaian, an ordinary guy and Kemp Republican, has gotten the endorsement of some of the most influential black Democrats in the state.)
* Crime is once again a metaphor for the race issue. Governor Cuomo is betting everything on his opposition to capital punishment, which is popular in New York if you look at the public opinion polls, but loses at the ballot box when played with the intensity that Cuomo throws into it. GOP challenger George Pataki's lead has melted away as Cuomo characterizes him as a man who would solve all the state's most serious problems by putting people to death. Voters who respond to the crime message vote Republican anyway. The middleground swing voters -- the minorities, Reagan Democrats and independents -- can only be moved to the GOP column by pocketbook issues and are skeptical of the crime issue.
* In California, the race issue has emerged around Prop. 187, which is aimed at illegal immigration from Mexico. Denying non-emergency public services to illegals seemed like an easy win until Jack Kemp, a 1996 GOP presidential hopeful, stirred the pot by opposing it, with inferences of racial overtones in the motivation behind it. In Robert Novak's column yesterday, he writes: "Kemp made matters worse by declaring that 'we must never ever...turn our backs on people of color.' To Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, an erstwhile Kemp backer who has broken with him over immigration, 'that implied that we (supporters of Prop. 187) are a bunch of bigots.'" Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, apparently riding Prop. 187 to an easy re-election win over Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown, has now gotten himself all tangled up in the controversy, making matters worse for himself by seeming to support a national ID card to sort out the illegals -- a clear opening for the Democrats to join Kemp in citing the Big Brother aspects of Prop. 187.
In each case it is difficult to blame the Democrats for doing what comes naturally to them -- exploiting opportunities opened up for them by Republicans. A noted Republican policy theorist did write the "Bell Curve" quackery, and like lemmings, other Republican pundits rushed to his defense. The Wall Street Journal spread his thesis on its editorial page. William Safire, the house GOP pundit at The New York Times, denounced Murray's critics for not taking his blatherings seriously. Leading black conservatives, including Thomas Sowell, for goodness sakes, followed like sheep in attacking Murray's critics for their excesses instead of attacking Murray's genetic hypothesis. In the Bob Grant case, there would have been no story if New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman had not fueled the fire by announcing that she would boycott the Grant show; practically every informed citizen of northern New Jersey knows she monopolized the Grant show when she ran for governor and may not have won without his support! In California, Kemp had been denouncing the Big Brother language of Prop. 187 all year on trips to the state, with no press attention. The story snowballed when Pete Wilson, another GOP presidential hopeful, snapped back at Kemp last week, putting the story in motion.
Is any of this important? Of course, it is. It's the messy way we communicate with each other in a democracy. The electorate will do its best to sort out the message it wants to convey, although, as sure as night follows day, the Beltway spinmeisters will read exactly what they want into the vote. Republicans who allow themselves to be trumped by the race card only have themselves to blame. Except for Kemp, GOP leaders, including Newt Gingrich, seem willing enough to define these mid-term elections exclusively on cultural grounds. This innocently plays into the hands of the Democratic race card. The elections will set the stage for 1996, though, elevating those candidates and issues in which the voters are genuinely interested. It has already revived Kemp, who has been wandering in the wilderness for the last few years.
We can also thank Charles Murray for raising the central issue that stands in the way of ending once and for all the nation's racial divide -- the pervasive myth that at the outset of life the brain cells of people with dark skin have less potential than the brain cells of people with light skin. Juan Williams of The Washington Post, a rising star among younger black opinion leaders, argued on Jesse Jackson's CNN interview show last Saturday that the black community knows this issue has been coming, and it should be directly confronted intelligently, without rancor or anger. In discussing this with Williams yesterday, I noted that 25 years ago almost every white adult male I knew -- liberal and conservative -- believed there would never be a black quarterback in the NFL. Blacks could run and jump, block and tackle, but lacked the IQ to lead a pro football team. In another 20 years, unless financial capital can flow from whites who have it to blacks who don't, all NFL quarterbacks will be black, and there will be another million prisoners in federal and state jails. The threshold we are now going through is a painful one as well as a messy one, but as political power devolves from the state to the people -- which is what the elections are really about -- capital will flow from whites to blacks. When 25 Republican candidates for the U.S. Congress are black, as they are this year for the first time ever, Juan Williams says he knows something serious is going on.
This may be the last year the race card can be played without being laughed off the table. Writing about the New York race, Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, a thoughtful liberal, gropes toward an insight: "The dilemma for Cuomo, as it is for all liberals, is to champion the poor without alienating those who aren't. But they also have an obligation to acknowledge what no longer works, and that racial or ethnic prejudice is not all that ails the poor. For Cuomo, for all liberals, the road to reality is a street of immense sorrow, a true Boulevard of Broken Dreams....There's no shame in having a dream, but it is time to wake up."