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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ron Walters on Party Unity and the Convention

The Struggle for Party Unity at the Democratic Convention

Ron Walters

There is the tradition in the Democratic party that once the blood has been spilled on the floor of the primary elections, the party attempts to come together at the Convention in a grand display of “party unity.” This time however, there are a couple of things that stand in the way.

First, there is the strong perception that Hillary and Bill Clinton stand in the way and to appease them, Barack Obama has given them speaking roles at the Convention, an act for which he has come under fire in some quarters. Despite the fact that the Clintons “showed out” in the primary elections and caused Obama much pain with their race-loaded salvos against his campaign, they are still a force within the Democratic party and while he is campaigning Obama needs them to not make waves. Notice I did not say that he needed them to win, because he is doing very well in the polls against John McCain and, all things considered, he might able to win without their active support. But if they muddy the waters, by crying that Hillary’s constituents are not respected and if Bill keeps pouting, that conflict will most surely detract from Obama’s credibility among some voters, perhaps just enough to cause him the election.

So, what the heck, give Hillary and Bill speaking roles at the Convention. However, I would not have given them both prime-time slots. I would have put Bill on Monday morning out of prime and Hillary on Tuesday in prime; that would have left Thursday for Obama’s VP choice and Friday evening for his speech.

Then, it’s ok by me to put Hillary’s name in nomination. It puts Obama in the powerful position of allowing her historic primary effort for women to acquire some dignity. But it is also not unusual in that the names of other candidates such as Congresswoman.Shirley Chisolm in 1972 and Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 were put in nomination even though it was known they would not win. In any case, the fear that Hillary would “accidentally” be nominated is far-fetched by those who know how conventions operate. The nominee-to-be controls every thing that is said from the convention podium, and his advisers, many of whom are superdelegates, control most of the state delegations which, in turn, are controlled by the Obama campaign. So, only so many votes could “accidentally” be cast for Hillary.

The second issue is who else speaks and I have suggested that Black voting America, who will constitute 20% of the Democratic party total and thereby make a serious the difference, should have a clear and unequivocal voice speaking from the podium that characterizes the condition of the black community and projects its policy demands into the political system. Blacks are used to making demands on nominees, but it may be difficult to do it this time, because they are so afraid it may cost Obama victory.

Nevertheless, I believe that either Rev. Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton or someone like that should speak at the Convention. Both are former candidates for the Democratic Nomination for president, both have given one of the best speeches at previous conventions and both are recognized leaders today. I fear that the tendency may be to give this task over to one of what is wrongly called the “post-civil rights,” “post-black” -- post-everything black, institutionally controlled leaders who will stand up and give a compromised view of where the black community stands at this point in history.

Of course, the major media would love it. They desperately desire the Corey Bookerization of black leadership because it validates their power and ultimately their perspective. I say this not to denigrate the Mayor of Newark, but to emphasize the many views of journalists who approve of this style as representative of a new, race-neutral, non-confrontational, technocratic, style of black leadership.

For Blacks to lose this opportunity to speak truth to America from this vantage point could put a seriously flawed fa├žade on “party unity.” But regardless, almost everyone will leave Denver happy that history for women and for Barack Obama has been made.

Dr. Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, Director of the African American Leadership Center and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park. One of his latest books is: Freedom Is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates and American Presidential Politics (Rowman and Littlefield)

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