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Bush, Blacks and Iraq

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Bush, Blacks and Iraq

War May Make It Tough for the President to Make Inroads With Minority Voters

By Terry M. Neal

washingtonpost.com Staff Writer

Thursday, May 20, 2004; 10:09 AM

President Bush's campaign advisers sat down and crunched some numbers after the 2000 election and hypothesized that, because of the growth of minority populations, if whites and non-whites voted in the same proportions they did in the 2000 election, Democrats would win the White House by about three million votes in 2004.

This meant that if the president planned on serving two terms, he needed to get serious about broadening the Republican base —something he largely failed to do in 2000. While there was some improvement among Hispanic voters, Bush did worse among black voters than Bob Dole had done in 1996.

But with less than six months until Election Day, it appears that Bush's handling of the war in Iraq has reinforced among black voters some of the worst impressions of the Republican Party.

White Republicans frequently ask me why more blacks don't vote Republican. I have witnessed Fox News's Sean Hannity more than once berating an African American official on this subject, as if it were more of an accusation than a question.

Many black voters are culturally conservative, with strongly held Christian values that put them in line with the Republican Party, especially on issues such as same-sex marriage, school vouchers and partial privatization of Social Security. Yet on a host of other issues—from social justice to affirmative action to economic policy—black voters tend to go the other way. And Iraq is the latest example of a public policy on which many black voters simply find themselves on the polar opposite side from the GOP.

The Data

This week, Cornell Belcher, a black pollster based in Washington, D.C., who works for several progressive organizations, shared some startling numbers with me. He has been doing monthly polling in six key battleground states -- Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida, Michigan and Nevada. Even as white voters nationwide have been moving toward negative feelings about the war, black voters have taken those feelings and supersized them.

Seventy-three percent of African Americans in those states disagree that the war in Iraq is worth the U.S. casualties there because the country is safer. Sixty-three percent agree that America should cut its losses and pull out of Iraq right now.

And here's the real kicker. On the question of whether Bush intentionally misled the country, 77 percent agree at least somewhat.

Belcher doesn't have similar numbers for whites to compare, but all of those numbers are significantly worse for Bush than those found in recent national polls of both whites and blacks.

In the latest nationwide Washington Post/ABC News poll, for example, respondents were split 49-47 (a virtual tie, considering the margin of error) on the question of "considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, do you think the war with Iraq was worth fighting, or not?"

"Whites are beginning to move from being split on the war to opposing the war," Belcher said. "African Americans are soundly against the war and have been for some time."

With African Americans being such historically loyal Democratic voters, it may not be obvious why blacks would be a strategic focus for Bush. But with such a closely divided nation, swinging just a few votes could help. Some Republicans have demonstrated an ability to attract black votes with the right message. Even former senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who died last year, carried more than 20 percent of the black vote in some of his recent elections—and he was a former segregationist.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Iraq stands out because it is the nexus for a confluence of issues that include the economy, tax cuts, health care and education.

As the justifications for going to Iraq have evaporated, it has only served to underscore the deteriorating conditions in communities such as inner-city Baltimore, which Cummings represents. Cummings said that people in his district are asking why the nation is spending $200 billion on Iraq -- given the lack of weapons of mass destruction and proof that it was an imminent threat -- when the need to improve schools, access to health care and the crumbling infrastructure is so great.

The sour mood among black voters is reinforced by a 9.3 percent black unemployment rate in April -- almost double the 4.8 percent rate for whites. The black unemployment rate is up almost three percentage points since April 2000.

Combine this with a feeling among some blacks, Hispanics and poor whites that they are bearing most of the burden for fighting and dying in the war, while the sons and daughters of the rich are spared and rewarded with huge tax cuts, and the result is outright anger.

"As I move throughout my district, I'm constantly talking to people, and a lot of people are very upset with Bush," Cummings said. "I do think it makes it much more difficult for him to get the kind of numbers he might want."

But many Republicans are hopeful. Harold E. Doley Jr., who has served in various capacities in five Republican administrations, is a self-made man and the first black to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He previously served as the U.S. ambassador to the African Development Bank and is currently a member of the White House Initiative for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Doley said the war is not going to be an issue "in terms of the bad news and headlines" because the administration is preparing to "pull a [Nixon Secretary of State] Kissinger: declare victory and pull out . . . by election day, the primary concerns will be economics -- what's going on in the economy and who do you see as the leader that should go out and lead us for the next four years. And on both points, I think the American people will be more inclined to support Bush."

The Perception

In a speech in Kansas last week, Jesse Jackson took up the issue of Iraq. "Poor people make less and in wartime serve more," he said. "There are no rich folks' children in Iraq today. There are no CEOs' children in Iraq today. There are no congresspersons' children in Iraq today. The corporate CEOs get a tax cut, go offshore for tax avoidance, get no-bid contracts, export jobs, import guest workers and analyze how the rest of us live, suffer and die."

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), a combat veteran of the Korean conflict, has made a similar point, arguing essentially that rich white folks control the Republican Party and would be more cautious about rushing to war if their own children were likely to share the burden of combat

In 2002, during the march to war, Rangel introduced legislation calling for a reinstatement of the draft, which he said would balance the playing field.

More Number Crunching

As with anything in politics, the truth is a bit more complicated than Rangel makes it. I checked out the Pentagon's Web site for casualty numbers in Iraq, and it showed that African Americans so far make up a little more than 14 percent of casualties since the beginning of combat from March 2003 through May 8, 2004. That's slightly higher than, but not wildly disproportionate to the 12.5 percent of blacks who make up the overall U.S. population, according to the Census.

The Pentagon figures also show that all non-whites combined make up about 31 percent of casualties and 33 percent of the wounded in Iraq -- also close to their overall numbers in the U.S. population.

The disparity today appears to be based more on class than race. It's difficult to make a good comparison because the Pentagon does not break down casualty information by household income. But there is some evidence that poor whites are shouldering a heavy burden.

Robert Cushing, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted a study for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper in which he tracked those who died in Iraq by geography. He found whites from small, mostly poor, rural areas were a disproportionately large percentage of the casualties in Iraq.

For instance, people who live in counties with fewer than 50,000 people only make up 14 percent of the U.S. population, but make up 21 percent of the deaths. Cushing said that he and the journalists who studied the trend "came away with the impression that [the military] was a way out of those places. These are small, mostly poor communities that are not growing. The opportunities are not great."

In politics, perception is reality. And the perception among black voters is of an administration oblivious to its concerns. Whether these voters are right or wrong, blacks, just like anyone else, vote on perceived self-interests. Iraq, it appears, has reinforced perceptions among blacks about which party serves those interests.

When I mentioned to Rangel the Pentagon figures showing that black casualties have not been wildly disproportionate to the population, he got testy: "So what's your point! What's your point!" he bellowed in that famously raspy, New York voice.

He stood by his point that the nation's underclass bore most of the burden of fighting in Iraq, although he stressed that he understood the underclass included poor whites as well.

"We fight the wars," Rangel said. "It's our kids who are going off. . . . It's not just in the urban community. The whites are there, but they're coming from very low-income communities. My community knows that it's basically unfair. And it's not just my district. You can check it out yourself."

To be fair to Rangel, the draft did appear to have had a leveling effect on the racial distribution of military deaths. The number of blacks killed in action in Vietnam -- the last time the draft was in effect -- was very close to their numbers in the population. But the number of blacks killed in all conflicts between 1980 and now has been higher -- close to 19 percent, according to the Pentagon's figures.

Will Iraq complicate Bush's effort to cut attract minority voters?

"Absolutely," Rangel said.

Of course, as a Democrat he's supposed to say that. But David Bositis of nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies agrees. To these voters, Iraq means "money is not being spent on health care, education, on jobs," Bositis said. "Look, Bill Clinton wasn't so popular [among blacks] because he had some personality or something like that. African American income increased substantially under Clinton. Now you have double-digit black unemployment and the income growth that took place in the last half of the 90s disappeared."


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