Jewish World Review July 22, 2003 / 22 Tamuz 5763
Presidential politics: A time to pander, a time to push away
Ah, the "Pander Bears" are feeding again.
Pander Bear was the late Paul Tsongas' unflattering nickname for his toughest rival, Bill Clinton, as they competed for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. The term described a candidate who would promise anything to stay in favor with cherished interest groups.
Clinton broke out of that stigma with his "Sister Souljah" moment.
In a dinner speech before Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition in June, 1992, Clinton lashed out at the then-popular rap artist for comments she made in interviews that sounded as though she approved of blacks killing whites in that year's Los Angeles riots.
Caught on national TV news cameras, along with shots of Jackson looking deeply annoyed, it proved to be a defining moment for Clinton and Campaign '92. Clinton impressed swing voters, particularly white suburbanites, with a confident independence from Jackson that other Democratic presidential candidates had not shown. Sister Souljah provided Clinton with an excuse to distance himself from Jackson without losing significant ground among black voters.
Now a new campaign has begun with a new group of challengers to a new President Bush. Refreshing moments of principled straight talk with core constituents seem to be few and far between. The Pander Bears are back.
You could see them last week at the Miami Beach convention of the NAACP, America's oldest and largest civil rights organization. You could also catch a few at a Washington forum by the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay and lesbian rights organization.
When three of the nine Democratic candidates failed to show at an NAACP forum on July 14, NAACP president Kweisi Mfume lambasted Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio as "persona non grata" with black voters for their absence. "Your political capital is the equivalent of Confederate dollars," Mfume said.
When the scolding was picked up in national media, the absentee candidates got the message. They hastily arranged a makeup date held during the convention's last hours last week. The organization suspended its rules to allow the candidates five minutes "for the purpose of public apology and explanation."
Similarly, a day after the first NAACP forum, seven of the nine candidates appeared at a Human Rights Campaign event where they were put under the glare of activists urging them to take the most extreme position possible on the volatile issue of gay marriages. Support for "civil unions" was not enough.
Two candidates, Lieberman and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, actually drew hisses from the audience for refusing to support gay marriage. Only three of the longest long shots, Al Sharpton of New York, Kucinich and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun gave the crowd what it wanted by supporting gay marriage, not just civil unions.
Frankly, I fail to understand why so many people are afraid of the notion of gay partners getting married. But I also understand that not everyone in the country is similarly enlightened. In such a circumstance, I think it would be better to have a president who, if not completely on your side in every way, is at least not opposing you. But, again, not everyone is similarly moderately disposed. Some people take an all-or-nothing attitude to politics. They are what politicians call "a pain in the neck," although the politicians usually don't say this in public.
Interestingly, a Web surf indicates that the three persona non gratas received more public attention for their absence than the others received for dutifully showing up. Like a man biting a dog, it is bigger news to see politicians nip the hands that feed them than it is to watch the licking.
But, if they're not careful, it also can be political suicide.
Such is the tightrope that presidential aspirants must walk as they try to win over their political base, then whip around and reach out to mainstream voters.
Such was the thinking that brought George W. Bush to the NAACP, an organization far more liberal than he is, as a guest speaker in 2000. It was his own version of a Sister Souljah moment, a signal to moderate voters that he was "a uniter, not a divider," and a "compassionate conservative," not a scary right-wing extremist, even if some of those people who supported him were.
Alas, despite repeated invitations, he has not found time in his busy schedule to return to the three conventions since. Ah, well, he's a busy man.
But it's still early. Bush and any of his Democratic rivals may yet surprise us with new Sister Souljah moments. Then we can see how well they can reach out to new supporters without losing their base.
For some candidates, that's a big stretch. But this is a big country. We need flexible people to lead it.
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