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Clinton express?

The ritual anointment of Bill Clinton as the Democratic presidential candidate, so rudely interrupted by charges of infidelity and draft evasion, has resumed with lavish pomp. Scarcely had the Florida exit polls been processed on Super Tuesday than the popes of politics and punditry laid on their hands. You knew it had to be a defining moment when Dan Rather opened his barrel of Southern metaphors and produced such crackers as, "Bill Clinton roared through the South like a big wheel through the cotton fields." Republican strategist Kevin Phillips was so sure of Clinton's nomination that he had his running mate picked out: Paul Tsongas. It seems hardly worthwhile to hold any more primaries. Why not save a whole lot of money and cut to the convention in New York?

Clinton's recent troubles with rumormongers, investigative journalists and occasional lovers suggest a hasty coronation would be unwise. New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth's telling (when comprehensible) story on Bill and Hillary's real estate partnership with an Arkansas S&L operator highlights the sleazy side of the candidate already apparent in earlier exposes.

Of course, that's baloney and this is politics, and it is on the political front that Clinton is earning his medals of honor. What confers the most respect is the exit polls showing his strong support from Southern blacks and "white voters of moderate means" (sorry, this year we can't talk about any class except the middle one). The analysts insist that no Democratic candidate can win the South in a general election without what Eddie Williams of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies calls "the Bubba and brother vote." Furthermore, the conventional strategic wisdom is that no Democrat can win without carrying the South. Add to that the factoid that no Northern white Democratic candidate since Franklin Roosevelt has received a majority of Southern white votes-and you get Bill Clinton.

That's the current spin, but there's ample evidence for a counterspin. A Democratic candidate not only has to get a good percentage of Southern blacks who vote-which Clinton did-he must also motivate an extremely large black turnout, which Clinton did not. In fact, while his percentage of the black vote, overall, was roughly comparable to Jesse Jackson's on Super Tuesday four years ago, the black vote in absolute numbers was down almost 25 percent. The total vote was also much reduced.

That's not a good omen for Clinton if he's the one in November. In the face of a creditable Republican campaign, which we have to assume Bush will ultimately put together, a Democrat must expand the electorate to overcome what looks like a natural Republican majority in the South grounded in white supremacy, Christian fundamentalism and patriotic chauvinism. A Democrat with any principles cannot embrace that ideology, but he can appeal to poorer whites on the basis of economic oppression and blacks on the basis of racial oppression to swell the voting rolls.

On his record, Clinton gives few good reasons for those groups to rush to the polls in the necessary numbers. He has been, as Jerry Brown aptly said, "a right-to-work governor in a right-to-work state," and he has never supported organized labor or its broad agenda in a region where unionization is the most important means of economic betterment for poor whites as well as blacks. He runs against welfare (and by extension, welfare recipients) and he proposes boot camps as a way to deal with social disintegration. And while he has appointed many blacks to government positions, his strategy emphasizes individual achievement to the detriment of popular empowerment.

The morning after Super Tuesday, a lot of liberal whites were swooning over Clinton's biracial success. His campaign, the Times averred, "has enabled Americans once more to say, without irony or bitterness, black and white together." It's a sentiment heard a lot since the Jackson campaign, which made many whites nervous by asserting black leadership, by projecting power and by threatening the closed Democratic hierarchy. The racial division of America is profoundly rooted in history. It may be, as Andrew Hacker suggests in Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, that political struggle at the level possible in our time cannot bring the races together. It can't be that Bill Clinton's platitudes can do the work alone.
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Title Annotation:electoral prospects of Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Clinton
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 30, 1992
Words:716
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