Detroit–John Kerry and George W. Bush came here last week to lay out their urban agendas before the National Urban League in America’s urban nightmare. Under 35 years of monolithic Democratic-party rule, Detroit has become the nation’s poster child for urban decay. Liberal welfare reform has destroyed the black family, public schools have graduated an adult population with a 47-percent illiteracy rate, and poor city services and high taxes have chased businesses out of the city.
Yet John Kerry offered no remorse for his party’s record. Instead, incongruously, it was George W. Bush who did the apologizing.
“The Republican party has a lot of work to do; I understand that,” said the president to the mostly Democratic, mostly black Urban League. The president’s words highlighted an appeal to African-American voters–only eight percent of whom supported him in 2000–to give the Republican platform a closer look.
Bush’s contrition was an acknowledgement that Republican indifference to the 1960s U.S. civil-rights movement opened wounds that have still to heal. But more importantly, Bush’s speech was a recognition that today’s Republicans have a great product to sell to black America. This president signalled that it’s about time Republican political rhetoric caught up with the compassionate policies that Republicans have been implementing on the ground. For as Detroit makes clear, Bush’s GOP has little to apologize for in America’s inner cities. After Bush’s speech, Kerry spokesman Phil Singer dismissed Bush’s extended hand: “On issue after issue, the Bush administration has actively stood in the way of creating opportunities for African Americans and other minorities.”
Singer has it exactly backwards. For two decades–and against ferocious Democratic opposition–conservative Republicans have led the way on urban reform with an ambitious agenda to try and rescue drowning inner cities like Detroit.
In education, charter schools have lit the brushfires of an urban revolution. Pushed by Republicans against relentless Democratic opposition, thousands of Detroit families now have a choice about where to send their children to school. This year, a Republican businessman, Robert Thompson, offered a staggering $400 million to fund more charter schools in Detroit, only to be rejected by a Democratic city council in thrall to powerful teacher unions. Democratic mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose own children attend charter schools, cast his lot with the unions instead of with Detroit’s children. Shouldn’t Kerry have apologized for that?
In the late 1990s, Republican governor John Engler pushed bureaucracy-fighting school reforms that resulted in the appointment of an independent school CEO, Kenneth Burnley. Behind Burnley’s leadership, Bush’s No Child Left Behind reforms, and charter schools, Detroit’s public schools have seen test scores rise for two years running for the first time in memory. In reaction, city Democrats are now demanding Burnley’s ouster for being too tough-minded. Shouldn’t Kerry have apologized for that?
Citing the large percentage of African Americans in the U.S. military, attendees at the Urban League conference deplored the 1,000 lives lost to “Bush’s war” in Iraq. Yet, in the city outside, 361 Detroiters were murdered last year, and the homicide rate is up another 50 percent this year. Furthermore, the death rate among Detroit’s children is the highest in the nation–1,032 were buried from 1999-2001 (according to the most recent studies). Shouldn’t Kerry apologize for that?
Yet Kerry and his supporters seem blithely unaware of the misery Democratic policies have caused in this city. Kerry offered no apologies in his Urban League speech. Instead, his message was largely a tired recitation of failed government programs including $400 million for new training and drug-treatment programs and a commitment to increase the number of minority-contract set asides. And Kerry threw in a healthy portion of political red meat. Stoking the conspiracy that blacks had been disenfranchised in the 2000 election, Kerry declared: “We’re going to make sure that every single vote is counted.”
The rhetoric brought the audience to its feet. But when I asked a half-dozen Urban League members after the speech whether Democratic policies have served Detroit well in the last 30 years, they agreed there was little to praise. Indeed, they were mostly suburbanites, having fled the core cities in the metro areas where they live. But while black leadership is solidly behind the Democratic party, there are today tens of thousands of African Americans who have enrolled their children in city charter schools, and thousands more on waiting lists to get in.
It is this black audience, beyond the fever swamps of the NAACP and the Urban League, who may be ripe for political change. Bush larded his speech with references to his “49-percent increase in federal education funding” and a tally of the black Cabinet members he employs, but his compassionate appeal to individual responsibility is where he hits his stride. His speech ended with a series of questions. “Does the Democratic party take your vote for granted?” implored the president. “Do they earn it and do they deserve it? Have higher taxes ever created a job in the inner city? Does the education status quo work?”
“I’m here to ask for your vote,” implored Bush, “because the party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass is not complete without the support of black Americans.” Gaining that support will be a long, hard slog, like “moving a rock up a hill” says Dan Devine, a local Republican official in Detroit. Bush’s speech here was a big step. “I think it was a good speech,” said Urban League CEO Elnora Watson. “I think he was genuine about what he said. He was about being caring and compassionate.”
The Urban League has challenged the two candidates to hold a televised debate dedicated to urban issues. Bush should take up the challenge. He should propose the debate be held in the middle of abandoned Detroit. And he should ask Kerry if his party wants to apologize for the view.
–Henry Payne is editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News and a freelance writer.