The Magazine

The Democrats' Race to the Bottom

There they go again. . .

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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"The threat is real," Jackson said of Bush that same weekend. "Clarence Thomas, backed by Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch--they'll take us back to 1896 [when the Supreme Court upheld segregation]. We'll go back on organized labor. We'll go back on affirmative action. We'll go back on self-determination."

It's worth noting here that Jackson's disgusting remarks--Clarence Thomas would like to return to an America where segregation is legal?--elicited none of the media response that greeted Trent Lott's comments. Three reasons: One, Jackson isn't the Senate majority leader. Two, Jackson has a long history of outrageous pronouncements. Three, there is a media double standard on race. In Lott's case, most journalists showed up late to the controversy and then piled on. With Jackson, there was no outrage at all. Reporter Greg Bolt of the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard even gave Jackson's comments a sycophantic introduction: "The man known sometimes as the great unifier and the conscience of the nation hammered home the need to vote."

The Clinton administration, never content to leave politics to the political realm, sent Attorney General Janet Reno in front of the cameras to warn against voter intimidation. Five days before the election, Reno warned that federal law contains "special protections for the rights of minority voters and guarantees that they can vote free from acts that intimidate or harass them." She continued: "For example, actions of persons designed to interrupt or intimidate voters at polling places located in minority areas by questioning or challenging them, or by photographing or videotaping them, under the pretext that these are actions to uncover illegal voting may violate federal voting rights law and will not be tolerated."

Reno was essentially updating the words her boss had spoken in 1998, days before a record minority turnout helped Democrats pick up congressional seats against historical precedent. Clinton, speaking specifically to Republicans, had urged them to "stand up and put a stop" to their alleged intimidation of minorities. "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." Despite several attempts by Republicans and at least one reporter to substantiate these charges, the Clinton administration could provide no evidence.

The attacks throughout the 2000 election cycle came despite the virtual absence of race as a policy issue. Shortly before the election, a think tank that focuses on race, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, polled black voters. Only 2percent polled said "race relations/ racism" was the top issue. Even President Clinton, who had spent much of the fall appealing to blacks on behalf of his party, allowed that the election was "not fundamentally about race."

Yet Democrats had a reason for race-baiting: "I think there's no question that the African-American community, no doubt about it, is the base of the Democratic party," Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley said on CNN just before the election. "So we're going to be working very hard to get that base out."

Gore's efforts to get the base excited were tireless. Shortly after Bush selected Dick Cheney as his running mate, a "Democratic strategist" told the New York Times about well-developed plans to go after Cheney for a 1986 vote he cast "against Nelson Mandela." The suggestion was that this was a vote for apartheid. The Democrats' opposition research was effective but dishonest. Cheney had voted against the resolution in question for complicated reasons, most having to do with the Communist leadership of Mandela's African National Congress. Cheney was hardly alone in casting the vote--145 Republicans and 31 Democrats had voted with him. Still, he was forced to explain the vote--one of thousands he'd cast--on numerous occasions during the campaign. Democrats had radio ads in the can. And a media frenzy seemed imminent, especially if Democrats could come up with the right person to make the accusation.

Who better than Bill Clinton? "Now, all the big publicity is about, in the last few days, an amazing vote cast by their vice-presidential nominee when he was in Congress against letting Nelson Mandela out of jail," Clinton said. "That takes your breath away."