Kemp, Farrakhan and the Black Vote
Jude Wanniski
September 10, 1996

 

Those of you who already are counting the Dole/Kemp ticket hopeless, with nine long weeks left to go, should consider Jack Kemp's latest contribution to the campaign. It has the potential of cracking the campaign open to a completely different level of debate. In a Sunday interview in the Boston Globe, Jack Kemp praised the Nation of Islam's Rev. Louis Farrakhan's "wonderful" philosophy of self-help in the black community. While he said he did not endorse all the teachings of Farrakhan, "who has been labeled anti-Semitic," the Globe reported, "Kemp also said he so admired the Million Man March organized by Farrakhan last year, and the speech Farrakhan delivered at the event, that he wished he had been able to take part. 'That Million Man March was a celebration of responsible fatherhood, individual initiative, of not asking the government to do everything for you, and getting an opportunity to be the man that God meant you to be,' Kemp, 61, said. 'I would have liked to have been invited to speak.'"

There is of course great nervousness among the lieutenants in the Dole campaign, whose natural tendency is to distance themselves from the risks to such a daring initiative, an initiative that was the best news I'd seen from the campaign in a week. Still, my guess is that Dole sees exactly what Kemp is doing, breaking down the barricades behind which the Democratic Party has locked up the black vote. It is going to take a lot of pounding, but if it succeeds, the rewards are enormous. In that same Globe story, Benjamin Chavis, the former NAACP chairman and national director of the MMM, said Kemp's overture to black voters and his condemnation of the OOP's past Southern Strategy to concede the black vote would not be significant unless it is supported by Dole and OOP candidates in general. What Chavis is really saying is that the nation's black leaders are not going to risk a break from the liberal plantation of the Democratic Party only to wind up behind the barricades of a OOP plantation. The reaction of the OOP establishment to what Kemp is doing here will help decide which way Dole will turn.

As it happens, Kemp will speak tonight in New York City at a gathering of the Jewish elite, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. How Kemp handles the Jewish leaders and the story itself will help determine what Dole is able to do. The story on the political grapevine is of course red hot. Kemp's pledge last week in Harlem to seek 25% of the black vote for the OOP this year and 50% by the year 2000 was a one-day story because it was not taken seriously by the political establishment. It's just Jack doing his thing. In his weekend column, Bob Novak had an item quoting anonymous officials in the Dole campaign who complained about Kemp's "obsession" with the black vote, which is assumed to be 10% for the Dole/Kemp ticket at best. Novak quotes Dole pollster Tony Fabrizio as saying skeptically of Kemp's 25% target, "If we get it, we win." By the end of the week, there will hardly be a black or Jewish voter who will not be commenting on what is going on here. It is this kind of dynamic that is required for the Dole/Kemp ticket to close the gap with Clinton.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that Kemp will get chewed to pieces and have to somehow retract what he told the Globe. Kemp, though, has what looks to me to be the winning hand. He is not only the most popular Republican in the black community, perhaps even the most popular white national political leader in either party. He also has as much respect as any national political leader who is Christian can have in the Jewish community. Coincidentally, as history would have it, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last week shook hands with Yasir Arafat, will also address the Jewish elite in New York tonight. If Netanyahu has a bosom buddy in the Republican Party, it is Kemp.

Kemp's winning hand in this high-stakes gamble has to do with the events that followed Farrakhan's MMM last October 16. On the "Larry King Live" show that night, Farrakhan rejected the anti-Semitic charge, telling King cryptically, "I am a Jew," by which he meant Islam's ecumenical embrace of the laws of Abraham and Moses. He also repeated a readiness to sit down with leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish organization with which he has most been at swordpoint. Asked by King if it were true that he was a black separatist, Farrakhan said he had little other choice that black leaders had been trying to integrate into the white world for 400 years, without success. His style of "separation" is not to move to a black enclave, but to stop trying to integrate with whites and focus on self-help instead. Kemp was sufficiently impressed to make contact with an old football friend, who is close to Farrakhan's chief-of-staff in Chicago, to make sure this was not all talk. He then called Abe Foxman of the ADL and asked of the possibilities of brokering a meeting of the two, with reconciliation the objective. The matter was dropped when Foxman, no doubt realizing the enormous problems in moving that boulder, told Kemp that it would not be possible unless Farrakhan apologized for everything he had ever said about Jewish leaders in general and the ADL in particular.

A presidential campaign, though, provides the perfect time for the moving of boulders. The story that Kemp tried and failed to bring about a kind of private sector Camp David accord a year ago has not been told, although it was known to the English-language Jewish newspaper in New York City, the Forward, which is now preparing to run it. The Jewish community, which is firmly in the Democratic camp, but not quite as solidly as the black community, will now hear this story and decide what to do. There will be many among them who will understand that not only will the black community be watching for a response, but so will the non-Jewish community as a whole. Reconciliation is important stuff when people are making up their minds about the presidency. At the moment, Farrakhan is in better image shape than usual, having avoided a confrontation with the Justice Department over the $250,000 "prize" he was awarded by Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. He is wise enough to know public opinion would not stand for him being arrested for visiting foreign countries without his papers being entirely in order. He also knows that he wouldn't stand a chance ifhe accepted big bucks from a foreign despot against the law.

Where might this lead? If the Dole/Kemp ticket is going to win in November, they are going to have to get 25% of the black vote. The Wall Street Journal, which thinks it is Dole's responsibility to run negative tv ads to tell the American people what a bad fellow Bill Clinton is, continues to bark up the wrong tree. Dole can't win with women voting 60-to-30 for Clinton, and black women voting 99-1 for Bill and Hillary. Every Dole tv spot that promises to throw more of their sons and daughters into jail instead of into useful employment only widens the gender gap. White, male Republican political consultants are, as a rule, too dense to understand that when their female focus groups express a fear of crime and drugs, they do not want their President to put everyone behind bars after they have killed and raped. They want everyone to have enough hope, growth and opportunity to behave themselves to begin with. Kemp understands this better than anyone else in the campaign, which is why the ticket has a chance of winning. The people who will benefit most from a Dole/Kemp victory are African-Americans, female even more than male. But they don't yet believe it. Kemp's gamble on Farrakhan and the Jewish leaders tonight opens up that possibility.