Guest-blogging over at Ezra Klein’s site (mazal tov!), Dan Munz is suggesting the possibility of a Mfume v. Steele Maryland Senate race as a chance for Democrats to take on and shoot down the GOP argument that Democrats take Black voters for granted. I think Dan’s absolutely right that a concerted, rigorous response from the Democrats is long overdue. I’d say part of the problem, though, is that the Democratic party establishment does indeed take Black voters for granted, in much the same way it takes most chunks of the party’s base – union voters for example – for granted, and in a way the GOP simply doesn’t treat it’s own base. Wherever one comes down on the Katha Pollitt vs. Thomas Frank debate on whether or not evangelicals who vote Republican to erode reproductive choice get their money’s worth, the Republican party makes a serious, year-in and year-out campaign of selling itself to its base while the Democratic party more often treats its base like the weird uncle who always shows up drunk to Thanksgiving (the pundits who complain about how short-sighted the NAACP is for wanting Democrats to swing by when the NRA doesn’t ask the same of Republicans might spend their energies better considering why the parties’ records might leave NAACP members with more concerns about how loyal the candidates they vote for will be).

Granted, President Bush’s appeal to Black voters to better defend their interests by spreading their votes more evenly is pure condescending silliness (I’d like to see him apply the same logic to, say, Enron executives: “As long as you all keep voting for us, what incentive do we have to keep giving you those invisible handjobs?”). More fundamentally, of course, the problem with Bush’s case is the idea that Democrats brazenly push forward with liberal policies they know are bad for their Black constituents. The reality, unfortunately, is that Democrats tend not to do nearly enough brazenly pushing forward with much of anything. The problem isn’t that the Democrats are too far left; the problem (I know I know, I’m the guy with the hammer, and look – it’s another nail!) is that the Democrats are failing Black constituents, as well as White ones, by not offering a program or an approach that’s progressive enough. The Republicans are hard at work rolling back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, while the Democrats, even when they had branches of government of work from, have shown precious little initiative in extending them. Republican national candidates have mastered the art of the coded appeal to racist voters, while Democratic candidates remain anxious about looking like they’re trying too hard to attract Black voters (or, god forbid, “dependent” on them).

What might an aggressive Civil Rights agenda look like? An aggressive push for comprehensive voting reform, including a constitutional individual right to vote, uniform standards for ballot access and machinery, paper trails, and abolition of felon voter disenfranchisement. An aggressive push to transform the crimminal justice system into one which takes seriously the equal protection rights of Americans of different races and classes and which rehabilitates rather than stigmatizing those who pass through it. An aggressive push for drastically increased investment in education at all levels. An aggressive push to raise the minimum wage and strengthen the right to organize. An aggressive push to strengthen anti-discrimination legislation. An aggressive push for universal health care. An aggressive push for real affordable housing. That would be a start. Some of these areas have attained greater prominence in the Democratic party’s agenda of late, to a lot of people’s credit; others are still waiting. As Dr. King observed not long before death, the reforms that will achieve real progress in Civil Rights will cost billions. All of these reforms are changes in which Americans of all races have a stake, and which could be achieved such that the great majority of Americans would benefit. And this summer in Florida, I had infinitely more conversations with African-Americans reluctant to register to vote because of the party’s silence or meekness on continuing the progressive work of the Civil Rights movement than because they wanted school vouchers or felt demeaned by affirmative action or were scared of gay people.

So yes, the Democrats need better answers to the Republicans’ cynical appeals to Black voters, and they need candidates who are better at articulating them. But any message which boils down to “No, Democrats don’t take [you/us] for granted, they care about [you/us] very much” is doomed to fail. What the Democrats need, as Al Sharpton put it several times during the Presidential debates, is candidates who can give the donkey the kick it needs (not something Sharpton accomplished a great deal at). And the most powerful kicks tend not to come from candidates at all. As much as Dan talks about a “traditional” relationship between Democrats and Black voters, the tradition is fundamentally one of tension and contestation, one which envelops both Jack Kennedy’s supportive call to Coretta Scott King and Bobby Kennedy’s call to John Lewis pleading him to cancel the freedom rides. As with so many other cases, the job facing the leaders of the Democratic party is as much about improving its record as defending it.

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In a speech yesterday to the Urban League perhaps most notable for the cuts to shots of Al Sharpton trying to keep a straight face, Bush asked for the Black vote and listed questions the Black community should be asking. “Does blocking the faith-based initiative help neighborhoods where the only social service provider could be a church?” Nobody’s blocking them, we’re demanding they be held to the same regulatory standards as everyone else doing business with the government. “Does the status quo in education really, really help the children of this country?” No it doesn’t – so we need more funding, not less. “Does class warfare — has class warfare or higher taxes ever created decent jobs in the inner city?” Well, the question of who’s really perpetrating the class warfare aside, the fact that no Republican President in the past century has created as many jobs as any Democratic President might be more than a coincidence. One of these questions was whether we should be “making excuses” for drug-users. Maybe Bush could learn something from another Republican who’s recently concluded that it’s his party that should be asking itself some tough questions about drugs:

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) yesterday touted drug treatment as an alternative to prison for nonviolent offenders as he launched a panel designed to coordinate Maryland’s fight against substance abuse. “As regard to treatment, I believe in it,” Ehrlich said during a morning visit to a parole and probation office in Gaithersburg. “We know treatment works. The facts are treatment works.”

Ehrlich introduced Andrew L. Sonner, a retired judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and former Montgomery County prosecutor, as chairman of his new Maryland State Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council. The panel is intended to oversee the efforts of county drug and alcohol abuse councils that were established by the General Assembly. The signature provision of the law seeks to divert nonviolent drug offenders into treatment rather than prison. The bill, which called for spending $3 million to set up treatment programs, passed in this year’s session with widespread bipartisan support. It is expected to save money on incarceration.

Perhaps the most interest feature of the Times’ write-up of today’s debate is the short shrift given to half the candidates, who in the earlier draft were mentioned only as “other candidates” until the last paragraph which noted that Kucinich “has no chance” and that Sharpton “complained” about being ignored. The longer version up now is slightly, although not significantly better on this count. Kucinich and Sharpton at least made it into the photo – given that Sharpton was sitting right between Kerry and Edwards, it would have been hard to find any other way to take it.

The Times’ write-up of tonight’s debate suggests that Kerry and Edwards, both of whom oppose both gay marriage and a constitutional ammendment to ban it, chose to stake out less than bold stances on the issue:

“What’s happening here is this president is talking about, first, amending the United States Constitution for a problem that does not exist,” Mr. Edwards said. “The law today does not require one state to recognize the marriage of another state.”

Mr. Kerry, of Massachusetts, attacked Mr. Bush for raising the issue in the first place.

“He’s trying to polarize the nation,” Mr. Kerry said. “He’s trying to divide America. You know, this is a president who always tries to create a cultural war and seek the lowest common denominator of American politics, because he can’t come to America and talk about jobs.”

Needless to say, being told that your rights needn’t be excised from the constitution because they don’t yet pose much of a threat of being realized anyway is, one suspects, less than comforting to millions of gay couples in this country. And while there is of course truth in the oft-repeated argument that the Republicans exploit social issues to distract people from their economic interests, you don’t win people over to your side by telling them that your stance on the issue isn’t something they should be concerned about. Kerry deserves credit for voting against the Defense of Marriage Act, and it was good to see Edwards try to position himself to Kerry’s left on the issue by offering greater certainty that he would vote against it today, but there remains a serious lack of moral leadership on this issue.

Kerry was right on target, on the other hand, on the death penalty, saying pretty much exactly (with the exception of his support for executing convicted terrorists) what every Democratic candidate should when asked why he wouldn’t want to see perpetrators of heinous murderers killed:

“My instinct is to want to strangle that person with my own hands,” he said. “I understand the instincts, I really do.” He added: “I prosecuted people. I know what the feeling of the families is and everybody else.

“But we have 111 people who have been now released from death row ? death row, let alone the rest of the prison system ? because of DNA evidence that showed they didn’t commit the crime of which they were convicted.”

Edwards, unfortunately, took this one as a chance to move to Kerry’s right.

Then there’s this troubling continuation of Kerry’s muddled record on trade:

On trade, Mr. Kerry was asked to square his support for inexpensive clothes and goods from overseas for consumers with his support for labor unions seeking better wages and job protections.

“Some jobs we can’t compete with,” he said. “I understand that. But most jobs we can.” Mr. Edwards seized the issue, as he sought to draw a sharp a contrast by noting different votes the two men have cast on trade pacts over the years.

Kerry did get something else right though:

Mr. Kerry was then asked to name a quality of Mr. Edwards’s that he wished he had himself, but appeared not to entirely grasp the question. “I think he’s a great communicator,” Mr. Kerry said. “He’s a charming guy.”

Looking at the transcipt, Sharpton effectively called Edwards on his support for the PATRIOT ACT:

I don’t see how anyone that supports civil rights could support the Patriot Act. You talk about a difference of direction, Senator Edwards, the Patriot Act…The Patriot Act that you supported is J. Edgar Hoover’s dream. It’s John Ashcroft’s dream. We have police misconduct problems in California, Ohio, Georgia, New York, right now…And your legislation helps police get more power. So I think that we’ve got to really be honest if we’re talking about change. Change how, and for who? That’s why I am in this race.

And he provided the needed historical perspective on gay marriage:

I think is not an issue any more of just marriage. This is an issue of human rights. And I think it is dangerous to give states the right to deal with human rights questions.

And Kucinich (who, incidentally, captured 30% of the vote for second place in Hawaii) tried, with limited success, to focus the debate on the policy differences between the four candidates rather than the personal differences between two of them:

I think the American people tonight will be well- served if we can describe, for example, why we all aren’t for a universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care system. I think the American people will be well-served if we can describe why, for example, Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards are not for canceling NAFTA and the WTO, as I would do, because that is how you save the manufacturing jobs. And I think they’d be well-served if they would be able to see the connection, as I will just explain, between the cost of the war in Iraq and cuts in health care, education, job creation, veterans’ benefits, housing programs. See, this debate ought to be about substantive differences which we do have.

And I have the greatest respect for Senator Edwards and Senator Kerry, but we have substantive differences along these lines that I think it would help to explicate here tonight.

He hit this one just right:

Well, I’m glad to point out something that all those people who don’t have health insurance and all those people who have seen their premiums go up 50 percent in the last three years already understand. And that is that Washington right now is controlled by the insurance interests and by the pharmaceutical companies. And our party, our Democratic Party four years ago, John and John, I went to our Democratic platform committee with a proposal for universal single-payer health care. And it was quickly shot down because it offended some of the contributors to our party.

I just want to state something: We must be ready to take up this challenge of bringing health care to all the American people. And that’s what I’m asking everyone here to make a commitment to. Single payer…

John Nichols, in a welcome contrast to the mainstream media, takes a moment to try to unpack the meaning of Kucinich and Sharpton’s better-than-expected showings – including, as I mentioned earlier, Kucinich beating Clark and Edwards in three states – and begins by actually talking to a few of their supporters:

Kucinich backers in Maine were not, for the most part, being romantic. In interviews with the local media on caucus day, they indicated that they knew the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair was unlikely to win the nomination. But they also indicated that they wanted to send a message by backing the candidate who had staked out the most clearly antiwar, anti-Patriot Act, and anti-free trade stances in this year’s race. “Hopefully, he can have some influence on the final platform. (A strong performance) can add some credential to his positions,” explained Dennis Rioux, who caucused for Kucinich in Biddeford, Maine. Rioux, who was enthusiastic about Kucinich’s anti-war position and the candidate’s support for single-payer health care, said he hoped Kucinich would have enough delegates to raise those issues at the Democratic National Convention in July.

Sharpton backers were sending a similar message in Michigan. Sharpton, who campaigned aggressively in Detroit, actually ran second in the city. Only Kerry did better than Sharpton, who won 30 percent of the vote in one Detroit-based Congressional district, and 35 percent in the other. “(Candidates need to) pay attention to the urban agenda,” Sharpton backer Dorothy Redmond, of Detroit, told the Michigan Daily. “Although Sharpton won’t make it, I want to show blacks do vote and have issues.” Those sentiments won Sharpton seven delegates from Michigan, more than any of the candidates except Kerry and Dean.

That liberal media, at it again:

Representative Dennis Kucinich has every right to keep campaigning despite his minuscule vote tallies, but he should not be allowed to take up time in future candidate debates. Neither should the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is running to continue running, not to win

Kucinich and Sharpton were, of course, perhaps the two most interesting candidates in those debates. And their presence raises the burning issues muffled by the consensus of the Democratic establishment. Lieberman’s presence, for that matter, should force the four NYT-approved candidates to argue for a vision of the Democratic party as meaningfully to the left of the Republicans – practice that could only help them.

A few last thoughts on the South Carolina Democratic Debate:

Sharpton is absolutely right to question why for the poor to die for their country abroad is an “honor,” but for the rich to pay taxes is a “burden,” and to call for a less regressive payroll tax.

I’m not sure what Dean was trying to pull off with his critique of Kerry’s failed healthcare bills – it felt overly self-conscious and affected, even grasping. Kerry wasn’t particularly smooth in responding, but came off better over all in that exchange.

I wish I could say that Lieberman’s touting welfare reform as the sort of “bipartisan accomplishment” he’d continue lost him my vote, but clearly he never had it in the first place. I do find it sad that the welfare system has been completely off the radar of these debates.

I was glad to see Kerry get called on what Brooks called the “inner Moynihan” of some of his ’90s rhetoric. He came off quite defensive responding to a statement of his on affirmative action, and preached fealty to the “mend it, don’t end it” stance multiple times without allaying any fears about what kind of mending he plans to do.