For Now, Clinton Has A Contract With Black America

As President Clinton and Capitol Hill Republicans haggle over a balanced-budget deal that will slash Great Society programs, a sense of abandonment is growing in Black America. After all, African Americans would bear a disproportionate burden from cutbacks in subsidized medical care, housing assistance, job training, and dozens of other government benefits. Yet Bill Clinton's political standing with black voters is not going the way of thedisappearing welfare state.

Why? Newtophobia. While many African Americans are disappointed that Clinton hasn't been a stronger advocate for liberal social programs, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has become so loathsome to blacks that he's generating a rally-'round-the-President movement, despite Clinton's rightward tilt. A December Harris poll, for example, found that only 15% of blacks approved of Gingrich's performance.

STANDING FIRM. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson says that Gingrich has stirred up the black community "just like Bull Connor and George Wallace did. He's mean-spirited and he has a radical disregard for the neediest people." Three months ago, Jackson flirted with an independent Presidential run that could have wrecked Clinton's prospects. But now, Jackson appears to have shelved his own candidacy to focus on electing Democrats in '96.

Clinton has also helped his cause by fighting Gingrich & Co. over a few issues of transcendent importance to black Americans. He refused to reverse his support for affirmative-action policies, held out for more Head Start funds, and drew a budgetary line in the sand over summarily ending Medicaid. "President Clinton walks the walk when it comes to domestic policy," says Detroit Mayor Dennis W. Archer, a Democrat.

Other moves have cemented Clinton's hold on black voters. He was careful to endorse the "personal responsibility" theme of the Million Man March while distancing himself from organizer Louis Farrakhan. And he has stood by two embattled African American Cabinet officers: Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown and Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary, despite GOP calls to fire them.

Ron Lester, president of polling firm Lester & Associates, notes that Clinton's positive rating among blacks has jumped in his surveys from 63% a year ago to 80%--higher even than ratings for Jackson or Colin L. Powell. "We feel comfortable with Clinton," says Lester, who is black.

The President's campaign strategists want to maintain that comfort level through Election Day. They believe a heavy African American turnout is essential for Clinton to carry crucial swing states such as California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. For starters, the President plans to deliver a major address on Martin Luther King Day as a reminder of his commitment to the black community. And his campaign is planning get-out-the-vote drives to reverse 1994's sharp drop in black turnout. Jackson has pledged to help register 8 million new voters. "This generation can defeat Gingrich and his forces," he says.

Still, other black leaders want to keep the pressure on Clinton to ensure that he doesn't move rightward again. Grumbles Northeastern Illinois University political scientist Robert Starks: "Clinton will go whichever way the wind blows." One idea is to present Clinton and the GOP nominee with an African American contract adopted at a national convention this summer. Says Howard University political scientist Ronald W. Walters: "We have to exercise some leverage."

If Clinton takes their support for granted, disaffected black leaders are talking of boycotting the race. But with Gingrich vowing to make a new run on the welfare state, opinion in Black America is crystallizing--in Clinton's direction.

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