Democratic presidential candidates have a Catch 22 problem. They have no chance of ousting Trump from the Oval Office without a massive turnout of black voters, especially in the five states that will decide the White House. Yet, there is absolutely no sign, so far, that this turnout will ever occur. The problem is not with Trump, but with the top-tier Democratic candidates themselves.
Amy Klobuchar, a former county prosecutor, is the latest to fall victim to this problem. She has been raked over the coals for the prosecution of a black teen, Myon Burrell, for murder. Burrell is no longer a teen but a man rapidly approaching middle age, in prison since his youth. There is lots of inferential evidence that he was wrongly convicted, and lots of the usual biased racial overtones regarding the prosecution. Klobuchar virtually guaranteed that it would continue to dog her on the campaign trail when she did not walk back her role in the case.
Then there are the others. Joe Biden still routinely gets criticized for his support of the Clinton Crime Bill. And Pete Buttigieg gets hectored for not doing enough about the police murder of a black man and allegedly neglecting poor black neighborhoods in South Bend.
Michael Bloomberg, no matter how much good stuff he has to say about combating black poverty, will continue having stop and frisk and redlining tossed in his face. Both are sore spots for many blacks, and rightly so.
Then there’s the curious case of Bernie Sanders. Bernie has tried mightily to put forth sweeping initiatives to combat police abuse and promote special programs to deal with chronic black poverty. But that gets buried in his attacks on big corporations and Wall Street, and calls for Medicare for all, none of which carry any special black imprint coming from Bernie.
Finally, there’s Elizabeth Warren. She, has come late to the racial game. She made her reputation, as Bernie made his, by hammering away at Wall Street and railing against income inequality. That’s a great populist stance, and it has made her the darling of progressives. But without an explicit policy edge to benefit blacks it falls flat as a campaign issue that will excite racial passions.
This brings it back to the worrisome concern about black voter turnout. Remember, it is the number, not percentage of black voters who turn out that will mean the difference for the 2020 nominee. The 2008 election decisively proved that the presidential re-election bid is a pure numbers game.
If black voters had not turned the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries into a virtual holy crusade for Obama, and if Obama had not at times subtly stoked the black vote, he could easily have been just another failed Democratic presidential candidate. Through its voter education, awareness and mobilization campaigns, the NAACP played a huge role in galvanizing and boosting the number of black voters, with virtually all votes going to Obama. It was part race, part pride, and all a sense of history in the making by being a part of Obama’s epic win.
The mass rush by blacks to the polls was the single biggest reason that Obama carried the traditional must-win states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and broke the GOP presidential grip on North Carolina and Virginia. The 2012 election was no different. Polls that year showed that blacks were optimistic that the country was heading in the right direction. That was due almost exclusively to their backing of Obama. That was the key factor in getting large numbers of voters to show up at the polls on Election Day.
Obama kept the enthusiasm level high by holding a black leadership conference and issuing what was close to a white paper on race, which included a checklist of initiatives such as health care, job stimulus and small business aid that benefited blacks. The position paper was an obvious answer to the shouts from some black activists, and occasionally the Congressional Black Caucus, which claimed he hadn’t said or done enough about chronic high unemployment, failing public schools, high incarceration rates, worries about home foreclosures, and the poverty crisis facing black communities. And it worked.
The top-tier Democratic candidates are not Obama. They are white males and females with racial baggage. Whether that baggage is enough to repulse black voters the eventual nominee needs to oust Trump remains to be seen. But it’s that uncertainty that remains a Catch 22 for Democrats.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is author of “What’s Right and Wrong with the Electoral College” (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on Radio One Network, and host of “The Hutchinson Report” on KPFK 90.7 FM, Pacifica Radio, Los Angeles.