Black Democratic activists act like they're taking seriously the Republican goal of getting 20% of the black vote, as well they should. And there was open concern that the selection of a Jew on the Democratic ticket would alienate some rank-and-file blacks.
But Sen. Joe Lieberman could not have been more welcome at the Congressional Black Caucus's meeting during the Democratic National Convention Tuesday morning if he'd brought Clarence Thomas' head on a silver platter. Unfortunately for the Republicans' best-laid plans, the black political class at least appears to have decided on a course of realpolitik: Don't self-destruct, play the game as it lies, and focus on extracting maximum concessions (and, oh my, is Lieberman conceding). Rather than focusing on his religion or lack of melanin per se, his black supporters have focused on his Civil Rights activism and a shared legacy of being oppressed by the same people.
The key is Lieberman's time as a "freedom rider" in the 1960s, when he went South to help register voters. Dating as it does from the time when such work was incredibly dangerous (that time Gov. Bush lauded in his acceptance speech last week but did not join as it was happening), Lieberman's distant past serves to leaven his immediate past of some less-than-liberal, less-than-Negro-friendly political positions (for example, school vouchers, affirmative action). Jesse Jackson Sr., sensing the magnitude of what was at stake (both for the party and for the souls of black folk) set the stage for magnanimity with his early endorsement of Lieberman and calls for blacks to support him. He said, "our natural desire for our time to come cannot blind us to the progress that Lieberman's choice represents."
The Congressional Black Caucus has emulated Jackson enthusiastically. Every elected black Democratic official who is anybody was in the San Francisco Ballroom of the Bonaventure Hotel this morning, along with an adoring black crowd that rushed forward to snap the senator's picture and yell his name. In her introduction of Lieberman, District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, emphasized pointedly (and repeatedly) that black leaders had embraced Lieberman and insisted he campaign in their district, meaning that the members were going to put their personal credibility on the line to vouch for him to their constituents. Holmes admitted, delicately, that Lieberman had not been with the Congressional Black Caucus on "some issues," but "if you're with me most of the time, you're my man!"
"Don't stray too far," she warned jocularly, "but you're the man." The crowd applauded enthusiastically, and there were many call-and response "shout outs." It's obvious that Lieberman is in the process of being made an honorary brother.
Lieberman hadn't been at the microphone more than a few minutes when he mentioned marching with Martin Luther King in D.C. in 1963 and, inspired by that, moved on to lead a group of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee volunteers to Mississippi. He dropped the name of most of the luminaries of the struggle during the dark days. The kicker, however, may have been his mentioning that Gore had found a letter that Lieberman had written to him in 1963. Lieberman then quoted Gore quoting himself, to wit that "he'd gone to Mississippi because there's work to be done. This is America. We are one people or we are nothing."
Lieberman's work with SNCC is admirable. His courage undoubted. But quoting your prospective new boss quoting you saying something heroic and self-sacrificing in the service of the people you are now hoping to appease? Excuse me, but that still counts as shameless self-aggrandizement. Clearly, Lieberman has not yet begun to pander. I shudder to imagine how much more energetically he can tap dance and how much more energetically blacks will lap it up.
But dance he shall. After he invoked his Civil Rights war stories, he attempted to defuse the controversy about his record on affirmative action (the Republicans and the media have promulgated "misunderstandings") and school vouchers (which, yes, he sort of supports but only for parents who want to give their kids a "lifeline" out of failing schools while our beloved public schools are fixed).
Maxine Waters, the California congresswoman who had until today withheld her praise of the new ticket, closed out the meeting by making clear what should be the black attitude toward a non-black minority who dared to beat us to the Executive Branch without having a perfect record on our issues. "We were right to call him here to explain himself," she said forcefully. "We demanded that he clarify his views and made clear that it was time to come before the Black Caucus. Never follow anybody blindly. It's all right to do this. Its honorable to do this." And she made it clear this summons was not the last.
He'll have a lot of explaining to do. But in the end, it may come down to how many blacks know their history. If Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney mean something to young blacks, then Democrats might keep the black vote.