As part of their plan to take back the White House – let’s call it Operation Restoration – Bill and Hillary are reportedly intent on mending fences with black Democratic voters. The Clintons ticked off some of those folks during the bruising ’08 primary battles with Barack Obama, and they want to ensure that the community is fully stoked for a ’16 nomination bid.
Can Hillary re-bond with black Democrats? Gee, I dunno: After Bruce Springsteen spent most of the ’90s going solo and playing acoustic, was he able to reconnect with E Street Band fans for his 1999 reunion tour?
In other words, this particular Clinton reunion effort should be a cinch. Their longstanding ties to the black community are deep enough to trump the ’08 speed bump. Yeah, Bill went a bit ballistic that year when he dismissed Obama’s antiwar stance as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen,” and Hillary angered some blacks when, in the heat of competition, she questioned her black rival’s credentials. But, to most black voters today, those details are so five years ago – if they’re recalled at all.
And that’s bad news for anyone who might be weighing the idea of challenging Hillary in the primaries. In the early and crucial South Carolina contest, for instance, typically half the Democratic electorate is African-American. Do those voters have the same gut affection for Joe Biden? Do they even know who Elizabeth Warren or Martin O’Malley are?
By contrast, here’s what black primary season voters know about the Clintons: Bill is an honorary black guy, and Hillary usually reaps the benefits.
As governor of Arkansas, Bill appointed more blacks to state posts than all his predecessors combined. Years earlier, as a college kid on Georgetown, he serenaded friends by reciting passages from Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. As president, he defended affirmative action and public education, put more blacks in his Cabinet than any predecessor, and presided over an economy that yielded the lowest black unemployment rate in history.
But it’s not just about policy, it’s chemistry. As Roger Wilkins, a former LBJ White House aide and son of a civil rights leader, once told me, Bill “is more personally at ease with black people than any previous president.” As Ron Walters, a former Jesse Jackson aide, once told me, “It’s empathy and psychology.” And when Bill got in trouble during the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, blacks were his staunchest defenders. They believed he was being railroaded by the same kind of government inquisitors who had sullied Rev. King.
Meanwhile, Hillary gets props for making amends with Obama and joining his team as Secretary of State. She has been rewarded for her loyalty. In November ’09, 93 percent of black voters viewed her favorably – 34 points higher than her standing among blacks in May ’08, when primary season bitterness was at its apogee. She has sustained her renewed popularity; in a Quinnipiac poll four months ago, 88 percent of blacks gave her a thumbs-up.
And even though she ultimately drew only 15 percent of black voters in her ’08 primary battles with Obama, the ’16 forecast is far sunnier. According to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, 75 percent of blacks say they definitely or potentially plan to vote for her. That’s three points higher than Democratic primary voters overall. And speaking of loyalty, Bill’s ’12 Democratic convention pitch for Obama (“He appointed Cabinet members who supported Hillary in the primaries. Heck, he even appointed Hillary!”) has likely buoyed her as well.
Maybe the Clintons still need to make nice to the pro-Obama black leaders who are nursing bad memories of ’08, but it’s clear that the rank-and-file black voters are already on board. The old emotional ties still bind, and no other ’16 aspirant can trump those ties. As the rock group Mountain once sang, “There are years behind us reaching/ To the place where hearts are beating.”
A farewell shout-out to Babe Heffron, who died Sunday at 90. Babe was one of the “Band of Brothers” portrayed in the famed HBO series, an Easy Company paratrooper who lived quietly in Philadelphia. He frequented a coffee shop at 4th and Chestnut – as recently as a few weeks ago – always clad in his vet jacket and cap. One time I approached his table and thanked him for his service. He lit up. I see that moment still.
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