With anger in Black America smoldering, you'd think the Democrats would be sitting pretty. Not so. A significant number of black voters believe Democrats take their most loyal constituency for granted. "The Democratic Party," says veteran Representative John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), acts as if it "needs blacks for elections and not in between."
The dilemma for Democrats is that the unrest springs from economic pain as much as political ire. The end of the '90s boom and a "jobless recovery" have left many blacks' hard-won economic gains at risk. "The phrase in the black community is: If whites get a cold, blacks get pneumonia," says David Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, a Washington think tank specializing in minority issues.
Homeownership is a case in point. The number of black homeowners grew by 30% in the '90s, compared with 13% for whites. Under President Bush, however, black homeownership has dipped slightly. Black joblessness--which during the boom dropped below 8%, its lowest level in 30 years--has been rising more than twice as fast as white unemployment and is now 11.5%. And median black family income fell 3.4% in 2001--more than twice the loss of whites.
Ironically, despite black anger at the GOP, that's trouble for Democrats. In his nascent Presidential campaign, civil rights activist Al Sharpton is accusing Dems of ignoring the poor while chasing suburban swing voters. Social inequity also led Conyers and Representative Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) to push for a new military draft. They say leaders are more likely to go to war if poor and minority youths--not kids of the wealthy and powerful--are on the front lines.
Black politicians also have a list of grievances with Democrats. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus feel slighted by the recent selection of House Democratic leaders. And some activists want to replace Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who elbowed aside Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's first African-American mayor, in 2001.
Blacks are divided over the candidacy of Sharpton, who has the support of just 12% of African Americans, according to a Jan. 4-6 Zogby International Poll. But the New York minister's candidacy has Democrats in a bind. If other candidates respond to Sharpton by moving leftward, they could lose the centrist voters they covet. If they confront him, they risk alienating urban liberals, who could doom Dems to defeat by staying home on Nov. 2, 2004.
Democrats hope Republicans solve this problem by further inflaming blacks. Case in point: Bush's Jan. 16 intervention on behalf of white students challenging the University of Michigan's affirmative-action policy. "Right now, the unifier is opposition to Bush and the Republicans and less a proactive program from the Democrats," says Emory University political scientist Robert A. Brown. Revenge against Republicans may well motivate a big black turnout in 2004. But it's not something Democrats can take for granted. For three years, Congress has pledged to enact a prescription-drug benefit for 40 million elderly and disabled Medicare recipients. Now, key Hill staffers are quietly telling lobbyists not to expect a measure without hefty savings from broader Medicare reforms. President Bush is expected to echo that view in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address. One problem: The parties disagree on how to overhaul Medicare, complicating prospects for a drug benefit this year. When Republicans won control of the Senate in November, business lobbyists hoped Congress would go easy on corporate tax shelters. But the new GOP chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Iowa's Charles E. Grassley, wants a renewed crackdown, especially on companies that move offshore to trim their tax bills. Grassley will use confirmation hearings for Treasury Secretary nominee John W. Snow to demand that President Bush turn up the heat on shelters. Software and hardware outfits will launch a $1 million public-relations campaign on Jan. 23 to fend off Hollywood efforts to win piracy protections from Congress. The Alliance for Digital Progress, which includes Microsoft, Intel, Dell, and others, prefers voluntary measures against piracy without congressional interference. On Jan. 14, the group said it will make nice with another longtime foe, the recording industry, to find ways to protect digital content without legislation.