Why Can't the Congressional Black Caucus Be More Like the Tea Party?
Three reasons why the CBC falls short of the Tea Party's influential status
The Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference began this week in Washington, D.C. celebrating its 41st year. President Obama is scheduled to speak, as he did last year, at the closing dinner. One thing is for certain, and that's Obama’s audience at this dinner will be one of the most approving, and least challenging, crowds he’s faced all year. And that probably shouldn’t be the case.
It’s a sincere question to wonder why the Black Caucus isn’t the Democratic equivalent of the Tea Party. Few other Congressional caucuses can lay claim to having a singular voice that represents Democrat strongholds throughout the country and puts the disenfranchised -- including minorities -- at the forefront of their agenda.
Like the CBC, the Tea Party's power isn't really in numbers. Poll after poll has shown that the Tea Party’s popularity ebbed a long time ago and mainstream America doesn’t support them. Instead, the Tea Party has focused on something far more effective: intimating to legislators the power they have at the primary ballot.
The Tea Party's power can be attributed to three things: simple messaging, unwavering leadership, and being a disruptive force in political landscape. And here’s three reasons why the Black Caucus isn’t measuring up in the same way:
1. Wrong message
The Tea Party showed that there is tremendous power in a cohesive voice, whether it be informed or not. While the CBC is indeed focused on issues affecting black citizens, they have not a particular issue that black voters can rally around.
The jobs tour was popular simply because people are out of work. And it did gain attention and attract 30,000 jobseekers. But was it enough to be a catalyst for change in the way people will vote? The jobs tour may have just been about that: helping folks to get jobs. But the CBC isn't a headhunter or a career services station at your local university. While they should be focused on jobs – as all politicians should be at this point – they should be looking for solutions that enable the public and private sectors to make large scale investments in hiring workers. In other words, legislative solutions.
2. Wrong Leader
Not to slight CBC Chair Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, but steadfast leadership isn't synonymous with invisible. While Cleaver is known as an even-keeled, good-hearted, intelligent leader, that just may not cut it at this time with black unemployment at nearly 18%, the highest it's been in 27 years. Where's the Tea Party outrage? Where's the Tea Party emotion? Cleaver did recently make the statement that if the jobs problem was like this under a white president, that black people would be marching on the White House. But he’s not the first CBC member to say something like that. The bigger question is if he has the follow-through on those marching orders like the Tea Party has.
Cleaver's leadership style is even more ironic when you consider that the CBC is putting more pressure on President Obama's administration than they have in the past. Rep. Maxine Waters even confronted an administration official at an event on camera questioning why he couldn't say the Tea Party was behind efforts to block jobs bills. So if the Administration's style is too passive for the CBC's liking, how is Cleaver's any better?
3. Not Disruptive Enough
The CBC must disrupt the normal course of business in Democratic politics if it wants to have an outsized influence. You can't ask for power; you have to take it. And by that I mean hit the Democratic party where it hurts: Wherever they need black votes the most. Start in North Carolina, Mississippi, and other areas where the Democratic Party absolutely needs high African-American turnout to win.
“Given where the enormous rise in Democratic turnout and where those turnout increases occurred, it is virtually certain that African Americans were a major factor in Democratic turnout increase and Democratic victories in Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia,” said Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.
This will only become more evident in places like North Carolina where black voters already make up 38% of all Democratic voters.
This isn't for the purpose of breaking the Democratic Party. Clearly the efforts of the CBC align with Democrats more than any other party. And if voters believe the party speaks to the issues and their concerns the way the party should, then support them. If not, stay home. The CBC must be willing to influence voters to the point where some may stay home and a GOP candidate may win as a result. That's a short-term loss. The long-term gain is that the Democratic party bears witness to a powerful organization that might as well be their double-edged sword: passionate advocate or principled adversary.