Monday, June 30, 2008

Can Louisiana Democrats Pass this Test?

The New York Times reports that Barack Obama and his advisers believe they can pick up electoral votes in the South in this fall's presidential election.

The article takes a somewhat skeptical view of this strategy and quotes a strategist or two not connected with the Obama campaign to explain why this won't work.

Obama is right. And, Louisiana can be one of the states that move back into the Democratic column when the Electoral College meets to elect the next president.

Here's the bit of the story that jumped out at me:
In 1996, for example, Mr. Clinton got the votes of 36 percent of Southern whites and 87 percent of Southern blacks, and carried 5 of the 13 Southern states.
There are two things that are relevant in that sentence. The first is that Louisiana was one of those five Southern states that Bill Clinton carried — he did it twice (1992 and 1996). He is also the last Democratic presidential candidate to spend media and campaign money in Louisiana after the nominating convention. Is it just a coincidence that no Democrat since Clinton has been elected president?

The other part that jumps out is that the percentage of votes that Clinton got from Southern white and blacks fits the broad outlines of the modern Democratic formula for statewide success in Louisiana. The formula, established by Edwin Edwards and proven by other Democrats in the nearly 40 years since it was established is this: a Democrat needs to carry about 90 percent of the African American vote and just a bit more than 30 percent of the white vote in order to win election.

This formula has broken down somewhat in recent years as a string of increasingly conservative Democratic candidates emerged via the open primary system. Over time, the appeal of these candidates among Democratic African American voters has waned as the perception arose that white candidate pledges of responsiveness to the interests of these voters was rhetoric, at best.

This has fed a resentment among African American voters towards white candidates that manifests itself in distrust ("why do they only come around here during election time?") or indifference as expressed in declining voter turnout among African Americans in state elections.

African American turnout has not fallen as precipitously in federal elections, in part because the lines between the parties are more sharply drawn at the federal level than in state politics.

Louisiana voters (white and black) care more about who gets elected president than we do about who gets elected governor, as turnout in presidential elections runs 15 percent higher than elections for governor. Could it be that our open primary system, which was supposed to polarize our politics on the extremes, has actually watered down out politics to the point of diluting it of meaning? If voter turnout is an indicator, there may be something to this line of thought.

A Historic Moment

Whatever else might be said about the upcoming election it is that this will not be politics as usual. Barack Obama is the first African American to become the nominee of a major party in this country. His campaign and its message have inspired African Americans to turnout in primaries in record number. But, his appeal has not been built on race and that is why his campaign has succeeded where other African American campaigns for president in the Democratic Party have not.

But, the question at hand is this: Can Barack Obama carry Louisiana this fall?

Judging by the numbers that Bill Clinton drew and by the outlines of the traditional Louisiana Democratic formula for victory, the answer is a resounding "Yes!"

Yes, we can put Louisiana's nine electoral votes in the Obama column.

No doubt African American turnout in Louisiana will be at historic levels. Voter registration among African Americans has been growing all year. Concerted efforts are underway to push those numbers still higher as the historic opportunity becomes clear.

The real test, though, will be for white Louisiana Democrats. As everyone knows, a high percentage of whites who are registered Democrats rarely vote for people carrying the party label. Why these people continue to cling to the label of a party to which they have such tenuous connections (if not outright disdain) is beyond the scope of this piece, but might well earn someone a Ph.D.

But, can Obama attract the votes of about 1/3 of white voters in order to carry our state as Edwin Edwards, John Breaux, Kathleen Blanco and Bill Clinton did? Or, put the other way, have about 1/3 of the white voters in this state moved beyond the prejudices that are loose in our culture and can they then bring themselves to vote to elect Barack Obama president of the United States?

This is the test of our party and its leadership at this historic moment.
Work To Be Done

As we have seen in recent weeks, there is substantial tension in the party between African American office holders and the party leadership over the perceived preference the party gives to white candidates in campaigns where African American candidates are also running. The current flash points are the 4th and 6th congressional districts where there is virtual parity between white and black registered Democratic voters in those districts (see June voter registration figures below).

The party's decision to open the newly re-established party primary system in federal elections to independents and minor party voters has had the effect of tilting the racial balance in those primaries in favor of whites since independents and small party voters are predominantly white.

We'll know by July 11 whether prominent African American lawmakers Lydia Jackson and Michael Jackson decide to run as independents in the 4th and 6th districts respectively. Doing so would guarantee them spots on the November 4 general election ballot. It would also likely guarantee the election of Republicans to each of those seats. The 6th is held by newly elected Congressman Don Cazayoux. The 4th is an open seat that has a real chance of moving into the Democratic column, but not unless the some kind of accommodation can be made in that district.

In the 7th District, State Senator Donald Cravins, Jr., has declared his candidacy as a Democrat for that congressional seat.

Ultimately, the party must prevent the splintering of its traditional coalition or doom Obama's electoral chances here. The collapse of this coalition would shatter the party and inflict deep — and possibly irreparable — harm.

With African Americans constituting something like 45.71 percent of registered Democrats and (based on the voting behavior of white Democrats) a higher percentage of people who actually vote for Democrats, the end of that coalition will mean the end of the Democratic Party as we know it in Louisiana.

Renewing Our Coalition

In sports, franchises can achieve greatness, fall from the pinnacle and rebuild over time. The New York Yankees, Boston Celtics, and New York Giants are franchises that have done this repeatedly over the decades. The teams and their fans carry the same banner, but the make up of the teams changes over time reflecting changes in the game, the aging of players, and changes in coaching and even ownership.

Louisiana Democrats find ourselves at the lower end of the cycle now, but the path back upward, toward consistent electoral success at the local and state level is clear. We must renew the political coalition that has served us so well, but it must include the willingness of white Democratic contributors as well as voters to wholeheartedly support African American Democratic candidates — just as African American voters wholeheartedly supported Democratic standard bearers in our illustrious past.

The future of this party depends white Democrats getting into the habit of casting their ballots for African American candidates in offices up and down the ballot. If enough of us can get into the habit of doing that, we can not only put Louisiana back in the national Democratic Party column, we can get our party back in the habit of regularly winning elections up and down the ballot all across this state.

We can do this only if we can prove that our coalition is something worth preserving; that it is something more than a one-way street working for the benefit of white Democrats but does not respond to the aspirations of African American political leaders and the people they represent.

The Heart of the Matter

This gets us right to the heart of the matter: race.

It is no accident that the Democratic Party is the party where the first African American presidential nominee has emerged. It was, after all, the Republican Party under Richard Nixon that developed its "Southern Strategy" of exploiting Southern white racial resentment to the Civil Rights movement and the end of segregation. It is a strategy that has been the Republican Party's basic playbook for national politics since 1968.

Barack Obama could only emerge as the nominee of the Democratic Party because our party has been the party of racial inclusion harking back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt. Because Republicans have used race as a tool to divide people for their political advantage, they are not capable of dealing with the impact of racial division in anything other than a politically calculating way.

But, the days are gone when being "not a Republican" was good enough to be considered a good Democrat. The times demand that being a Democrat mean something in the affirmative. That affirmation is a deep and abiding commitment to true multi-racial politics. That means white Democrats electing blacks to office even in districts where whites still hold a majority. It happened here in Lafayette Parish in the District One parish council election of 2007. It can happen anywhere.

It needs to happen in the 7th Congressional District this fall.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, America faces many great challenges. Louisiana, because we trail the nation so badly in so many categories, is doubly challenged. That is not cause for despair, but it is reason to recognize that if we are going to break the bonds that tie us to such this legacy of failure, we will need to draw on the capabilities and talents over every Louisianan.

We can no longer afford the luxury of our prejudices. Because of the history of the two political parties on matters of race over the past half century, only Democrats are capable of delivering that message — and, in so doing, delivering Louisiana into a new era.

Democrats across the country voted in primaries and caucuses to deliver that message. By huge majorities, we rejected racism and we rejected sexism. We declared ourselves ready to redefine our party and our politics. We voted to move into a new era bound not by the politics of fear but inspired by the audacity of hope.

The Choice Before Us

Now, the general election campaign is upon us. White Louisiana Democrats now have a choice to make. We can try to cling to the vestiges of a failed past and find some lame excuse not to embrace Obama's historic candidacy (and, in the process, recommit our nation to another four years of Republican corrupt failure and neglect). Or, we can rise to the occasion, seize the opportunity to launch our nation, our state and our party into a new era of forward looking consensus building.

This test will measure whether white Louisiana voters who call themselves Democrats have truly rejected the Republican siren call of race-based politics. Or, has it just been a game we could play to our advantage because whites and blacks had "their own" political safe zones?

The future of the Democratic Party in Louisiana depends on whether white Democrats can pass this test. For our party to have a future, it must be like the Obama campaign: multi-ethnic, inclusive, and transparent.

Are we up to it?

We're about to find out.

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