AllPolitics - Back In TIME

Two Ways to Play the Politics of Race

Bush may talk compassion, but he's thinking law and order. As for Clinton, he sounds like he's planning the Great Society, Part II.

By Michael Kramer

[Time cover]

(TIME, May 18, 1992) -- They've walked the walk and talked the talk, and now they're picking pictures. The candidates and their handlers have toured Los Angeles, and they agree on almost nothing, except the fact that the events there will dominate this year's battle for the White House. In their critiques and responses so far -- embryonic and still evolving -- the campaign to define the images they hope will linger is under way with a vengeance.

For the Bush team, the televised scenes of looters running from stores, their arms laden, demonic grins on their faces, are film from heaven. Never in the past have the Republicans had available such a record -- but they are past masters at exploiting the revulsion such travesties spark. The G.O.P. has been running tough-on-crime commercials since the riots of the 1960s first permitted them to rail against permissiveness as they played to white America's nightmares. Twenty years before Willie Horton, the 1968 Nixon campaign ran an ad in which a white woman, her purse gripped firmly in hand, hurried down an empty city street as an announcer said, "Freedom from fear is a basic right of every American. We must restore it." That spot was staged. The recent video of a white truck driver being beaten senseless by a marauding mob is real, and several Bush aides say they would "not be surprised" if some snappy voice-over were contrived to run along with that tragedy, played again and again in the fall as a reminder of the horror that awaits "us" if "they" are not contained.

"No pun intended, this will be a base election," says a senior Bush adviser. "It will take time and constant repetition, but we will communicate with our base of white and Asian voters. Law and order will eventually win for us because hard-working, honest people are scared and deserve protection. In the end the question will be, Who is better positioned to afford that protection?" In other words, while it is possible to read Bush's saying "We must make sure this never happens again" in various ways, the President's team hopes that by Nov. 3, one meaning alone will predominate -- and Woody Allen will have been proved correct again: "No matter how cynical you are, it's hard to keep up."

It won't all be dark, of course. "Campaigning," said a manual used by Nixon's political staff, "is symbolic, i.e., it is not what the candidate actually does as much as what it appears he does." Bush will do what he has already begun doing. He will speak of addressing the "causes of unrest" and the importance of "understanding hopelessness." This much he can do in his sleep. Bush has always spoken about compassion and opportunity and fairness. As Vice President, he told a friendly biographer that "as long as there are people hurting out there, out job isn't over . . . we will never be a truly prosperous nation until all within it prosper." When he accepted the 1988 Republican nomination, he said, "I've seen the urban children who play amid the shattered glass and the shattered lives . . . We need a new harmony among the races in our country." After his Inauguration, in his first address to Congress as President, he said, "We must care for those around us. A decent society shows compassion for the poor." Kind and gentle words all, yet today 2 million more Americans live in poverty, and the poor are even poorer than when Bush became President.

For content, or at least for its semblance, the White House is renewing its call for enterprise zones and tenant ownership of federal housing projects -- ideas Bush has rhetorically supported for years but has never pushed in any meaningful way. He has already rediscovered Jack Kemp, the Housing and Urban Development Secretary slighted and scorned for three years because he too frequently and too passionately spoke of the need for a domestic policy worthy of the term. In his own departure, Kemp will fulfill his new role as the Administration's ultimate team player. "Don't try to divide me from the President," Kemp fairly screamed into the phone last week. "The President has adopted my whole agenda. I'm not the pitcher, but the ball has finally been hit to me. Don't expect me to look back in some self-serving way and ask me to say, `I told you so.' "

While this much of the game plan seems smart, it ignores a painfully obvious fact: the Republicans have been in power for 12 years; the fire this time has occurred on their watch. "This time," says Republican strategist Kevin Phillips, "the pitiful lack of an urban strategy is Bush's fault, and most voters are smart enough to know that that's at least a part of the problem. Nixon talked tough, but he expanded food stamps, supported a guaranteed annual income and generally gave the impression that he cared. Bush simply isn't credible on these issues."

A heavy dose of feigned compassion, coupled with appeals for law and order, is only half the game plan. The other half, already on full display, is designed to nail Bill Clinton, and it too borrows from an old Nixon campaign maxim: It is not what the opposition candidate actually stands for, it is what he can be made to appear to stand for. The President has backed away from his spokesman's attack on the Great Society, but he has repeated the charge that Clinton represents a return to the failed, big-spending solutions Lyndon Johnson favored. As congressional Democrats propose answers that could cost upwards of $100 billion, the Bush forces are delighted. "Clinton can say, `That's not me,'" says a White House aide, "but before he can get to what he's really for, he's going to have to distance himself from the Democrats in Congress. And when he does that, he'll jeopardize his base by upsetting the blacks he needs to turn out in droves. When he turns back to recapture them, we'll hit him for supporting the conventional Democratic response of throwing money at the problems. The people who vote, the middle-class swing voters, hear `city' as a code word for blacks and decay, for everything they've run to the suburbs to avoid. They're upset with the King verdict, sure, but they're more upset about their being the next white victim when they drive through the areas they've mortgaged their lives to escape from."

While Bush's strategists "would not be surprised" if the electorate sees a "white truck driver" ad, the Clinton camp has an image it will "definitely" use this fall. "What we're all about is the post-riot video," says deputy campaign manager George Stephanopoulos, "the shots of blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians pushing brooms together in the cleanup. In a nutshell, that's our whole campaign. Everything else is secondary. The way to defeat wedge issues is with web issues. The Republicans are geniuses at playing to people's fears. But this is not 1988. Today the decline is everywhere, and everywhere evident to everyone. We think people want hope. We think the G.O.P. is stuck in the past. I hope we're right."

To his credit, Clinton has been preaching racial harmony from the outset of his campaign, and before many audiences ill disposed to applaud his appeal. He has also advanced a coherent plan for economic renewal that insists on reciprocal responsibility, a nothing-for-nothing program that strays far from traditional liberalism. In the current context, and in addition to his support for the enterprise zones and tenant-ownership schemes that Bush favors, the elements that matter are these: an earned income tax credit that would ensure that those who work full time cannot fall below the poverty line; a proliferation of community financial institutions modeled on Chicago's South Shore Bank that would provide capital for inner-city businesses; welfare reform that would reduce benefits substantially for those who won't work; drug treatment on demand; national service, the plan that offers a college education to those who will "pay" for it with a period of community service at below-market wages; apprenticeship training for those who don't want a university education; and strict child-support enforcement of the kind Clinton has introduced in Arkansas, where a father's Social Security number is entered on birth certificates to ensure collections when Dads become deadbeats. And, adds Stephanopoulos, in an effort to be "smart as well as tough on crime," Clinton has been among the first to call for increased community policing, for getting cops back on the street. "Unless crime is controlled in urban areas," says Clinton, "no amount of tax incentives will lure significant businesses there."

Clinton hopes that enlightened self-interest will cause swing voters to buy his agenda. He tirelessly repeats a statistic popularized by New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley: by the year 2000, only 57% of those entering the work force will be native-born whites. "It has become increasingly clear that the economic future of whites is tied inextricably to that of minorities," says Clinton. "From now on, we all rise or fall together, economically as well as morally."

Will any of this work for Clinton? History suggests he's playing a losing hand, that civil disturbance favors those whose first priority is law and order. But Phillips says that the bankruptcy of Bush's urban record may mean that as "the spotlight of morality shifts from Clinton's personal failings to racial detente -- where Clinton has a clear advantage -- it is hard to see how it will not get hot for the man who introduced Willie Horton into the lexicon of American politics."

In 1971, three years after he left the White House, Lyndon Johnson said, "Nothing makes a man come to grips more directly with his conscience than the presidency. The burden of his responsibility literally opens up his soul. In the White House, a man becomes his commitments. He learns what he genuinely wants to be." So far, all Americans really know about George Bush (who began his political career by opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a "radical" intrusion on states' rights) is that he wants to be President for four more years and

that, as he has said, he will do "whatever it takes" to win. But it is not too late. It is never too late. Like nations, souls can always be saved.

AllPolitics home page
Copyright © 1996 AllPolitics
All Rights Reserved
Terms under which this information is provided to you