Tuesday, July 22, 2003

President Bush’s upcoming meeting with the Urban League, coupled with his snubbing of more-militant black groups, mirrors his outreach to moderate Palestinians while ignoring Yasser Arafat.

In both cases, Mr. Bush hopes to turn nearly hopeless relationships into constructive dialogues with groups not known for their fondness of conservatives.

But in the case of next week’s meeting with the Urban League, the president is also seeking a more tangible political dividend, an increased share of the black vote in the 2004 election.

“The Republicans are not going to leave African-American voters to the Democrats this time,” said Donna Brazile, who managed the 2000 presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore. “I already sense a competitiveness, following the 2002 election, among Republicans.

“I’ve heard African-Americans say of Republicans: They’re in our back yard,” she added. “I say ‘No, they’re in our house.’ They’re still trying to figure out what it looks like, but they are competing for African-American votes. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

The president agreed to attend the five-day convention after a Democratic strategist quietly urged Urban League President Marc Morial to telephone Bush political strategist Karl Rove last week.

The strategist also assured Mr. Rove that the president wouldn’t be walking “into the lion’s den” — a reference to the president’s decision not to attend last week’s conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The NAACP has been much more critical of Mr. Bush than the Urban League, even running a political ad in 2000 that had the daughter of dragging-death victim James Byrd saying of Mr. Bush’s opposition to a hate-crimes bill: “It was like my father was killed all over again.”

The NAACP even excoriated several Democratic presidential candidates for missing its conference.

Mindful of those rebukes and not wishing to be shown up by a conservative Republican, several Democratic presidential candidates have agreed to attend the Urban League convention since the president’s decision.

After The Washington Times reported Sunday that Mr. Bush would attend the convention, which begins Saturday in Pittsburgh, an influential black Democrat began using that as leverage to line up wavering Democrats.

“I sent out an e-mail to the Democratic candidates who were sitting on the fence, hemming and hawing about going to Pittsburgh,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I said, ‘Well, Bush is going.’ A couple of them are now planning to attend.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, are among the other speakers that had been scheduled for the event.

The president “should have spoken to the NAACP … but I am glad he is doing this,” Mr. Cummings has said, although he added that “I don’t know what his rationale is with regard to speaking with the Urban League.”

In addition to outflanking his Democratic challengers, the president also seeks to bolster his support among blacks. He garnered 8 percent of the black vote in 2000, the lowest level of any Republican presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater in 1964.

By making his case before the Urban League, which focuses more on economic opportunity for blacks than politics, the president is continuing his strategy of appealing to blacks on pragmatic issues rather than ideological ones to peel away a few more percentage points from the overwhelmingly Democratic bloc.

For example, Mr. Bush has made inroads with his faith-based initiative, which appeals to inner-city churches by allowing them to provide certain government services to the disadvantaged. And he impressed many blacks earlier this month by emphasizing his $15 billion anti-AIDS effort during a five-nation tour of Africa.

All the while, the president has refused to be drawn into high-profile meetings with the Congressional Black Caucus or strongly critical civil rights leaders such as Mr. Jackson.

The White House appears to have made the political calculation that such groups will never give Mr. Bush credit, no matter how substantial his overtures to ordinary black Americans.

“Some of these organizations have been downright hostile to this president, and he realizes that there is more than one avenue to reach black Americans,” conservative black talk-show host Armstrong Williams told The Washington Times last week.

For example, civil rights activists have continued to criticize Mr. Bush for siding with white students from the University of Michigan in two affirmative-action cases — even though the president ended up praising the Supreme Court’s split decision, upholding diversity as justifying some affirmative action, though not Michigan’s undergraduate program.

And although President Clinton reveled in his image as the “first black president,” his inner circle of advisers was entirely white. By contrast, two of Mr. Bush’s closest confidants, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, are black.

So Mr. Bush has contented himself with targeting more-moderate black groups, borrowing a page from his Middle East playbook. To the surprise of many longtime observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the president has sidelined the polarizing Mr. Arafat, while promoting the legitimacy of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Miss Brazile, however, said the president should reach out simultaneously to both the Urban Leagues and the NAACPs of the world and laments Mr. Bush’s snubbing the NAACP last week.

“With Colin Powell at his side, he could have talked about his important AIDS initiative and it would have given him a lot more leverage,” she said. “Instead, he’s chosen to only go to the Urban League.

“I still think it’s very remarkable, because in the past Republican presidents often ignored the African-American community and skipped all of the major summer conferences,” she added. “So this is a very important occasion for the president. And I hope he gives a speech worthy of the audience.”

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