Friday, July 16, 2004

Bush's Not-So-Big Tent

July 16, 2004


Just as George W. Bush is on track to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss of jobs, he is now the first president since Hoover to fail to meet with the N.A.A.C.P. during his entire term in office.

Mr. Bush and the leadership of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization get along about as well as the Hatfields and the McCoys. The president was invited to the group's convention in Philadelphia this week, but he declined.

That Mr. Bush thumbed his nose at N.A.A.C.P. officials is not the significant part of this story. The Julian Bonds and Kweisi Mfumes of the world can take care of themselves at least as well as Mr. Bush in the legalized gang fight called politics.

What is troubling is Mr. Bush's relationship with black Americans in general. He's very good at using blacks as political props. And the props are too often part of an exceedingly cynical production.

Four years ago, on the first night of the Republican convention, a parade of blacks was hauled before the television cameras (and the nearly all-white audience in the convention hall) to sing, to dance, to preach and to praise a party that has been relentlessly hostile to the interests of blacks for half a century.

I wrote at the time that "you couldn't tell whether you were at the Republican National Convention or the Motown Review."

That exercise in modern-day minstrelsy was supposed to show that Mr. Bush was a new kind of Republican, a big-tent guy who would welcome a more diverse crowd into the G.O.P. That was fiction. It wasn't long before black voters would find themselves mugged in Florida, and soon after that Mr. Bush was steering the presidency into a hard-right turn.

Among the most important props of that 2000 campaign were black children. Mr. Bush could be seen hugging them at endless photo-ops. He said a Bush administration would do great things for them. He promised to transform public education in America. He hijacked the trademarked slogan of the Children's Defense Fund, "Leave No Child Behind," and refashioned it for his own purposes. He pasted the new version, "No Child Left Behind," onto one of the signature initiatives of his presidency, a supposedly historic education reform act.

The only problem is that, to date, the act has been underfunded by $26 billion. A lot of those kids the president hugged have been left behind.

And why not? They can't do much for him. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" captured a telling presidential witticism. Mr. Bush, appearing before a well-heeled gathering in New York, says: "This is an impressive crowd: the haves, and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base."

It wasn't really his base. But the comment spoke volumes.

Mr. Bush said he was a different kind of Republican, but what black voters see are tax cuts for the very wealthy and underfunded public schools. What they see is an economy that sizzles for the haves and the have-mores, but a harrowing employment crisis for struggling blacks, especially black men. (When the Community Service Society looked at the proportion of the working-age population with jobs in New York City it found that nearly half of all black men between the ages of 16 and 64 were not working last year. That's a Depression-era statistic.)

In Florida, where the president's brother is governor, and Texas, where the president once was the governor, state officials have been pulling the plug on health coverage for low-income children. The president could use his considerable clout to put a stop to that sort of thing, but he hasn't.

And now we know that Florida was gearing up for a reprise of the election shenanigans of 2000. It took a court order to get the state to release a list of 48,000 suspected felons that was to be used to purge people from the voting rolls. It turned out that the list contained thousands of names of black people, who tend to vote Democratic, and hardly any names of Hispanics, who in Florida tend to vote Republican.

Once their "mistake" was caught, the officials scrapped the list.

Mr. Bush plans to address the Urban League convention in Detroit next week. That would be an excellent time for him to explain to an understandably skeptical audience why he campaigned one way — as a big-tent compassionate conservative — and governed another.