“Who the hell did we strike for the World Trade Center bombing?” Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of Harlem, asked over the telephone on Aug. 24. “I don’t remember anybody.” Coming after a week of solemn debate over which film star–Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry or Dustin Hoffman as movie producer–was properly evoked by the American attacks on a nest of terrorists in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, Mr. Rangel’s take was, if nothing else, different: For him, the operative phrase wasn’t “wag the dog”; it was more like “whip the weak.”
“Retaliatory strikes are always done without mercy, whether it’s done by Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “The subjects are always people who have not got the military power to strike back.” To say nothing of the optimal complexion: The Afghanis and the Sudanese made suitable targets, the Congressman told an Aug. 22 breakfast held by a fledgling civic group called the Upper Manhattan Emerging Leadership Council, “because of their color, because of their poverty, because of their [lack of] power. If they can do it to nations, they can do it to us.”
Well taken or not, this point was intriguing; and not just because it took serious issue with a widely applauded action taken by the widely derided President Bill Clinton, with whom Mr. Rangel had traveled to Africa last April and to whom he remains staunchly loyal. (That said, “I don’t do interns and my wife buys my ties,” Mr. Rangel clarified for The Observer .) Readily seconded by several of the people at the breakfast, it also reflected the gap that frequently exists between the way black and white Americans see the same public picture. It is just such a perceptual divide, as applied to the Monica Lewinsky mess, upon which Mr. Rangel hopes to seize in what has become his tireless effort to help the Democrats retake the House of Representatives–and, of course, to help himself claim, at long last, the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
And Clintonian leanings aside, Mr. Rangel’s current approach to the politics of race is no mere dialogue: In the context of running unopposed for a 15th term, the Rangel campaign has already spent more than the average winner of a Congressional seat spent, start to finish, in 1996. That is because he is spreading the wealth, and spreading it wisely, targeting 26 Congressional races across the country in which the Republican incumbent won by a hair and in which African-American votes–if cast–can make the difference. Mr. Rangel is also front-and-center on the fund raising for the Democratic Unity gala, scheduled for Sept. 14 in New York. Slated for attendance by both Clintons and both Gores, the event will center around a performance of Walt Disney Productions’ The Lion King . “Can’t you just see ‘The Lyin’ King’ as a headline splashed across the Post ?” groaned a New York operative, but never mind: The President’s first post-admission fund-raiser is expected to raise some $3 million, much of it raked in by Mr. Rangel.
Even before their President added insult to lechery with the non-apology apology of Aug. 17, many Democrats were basically pessimistic about the feasibility of gaining the 11 seats they need to retake the House; the country’s current, Clinton-cushioning air of fat happiness favors incumbents of both parties. Though it is, of course, impossible to say how the Monica matter will tell on the Congressional races, it’s hard to see it as a Democratic plus. “A good case can be made for the idea that the real Clinton-haters who stayed home in ’96 will come out in ’98,” said Democratic pollster Christopher Lapetina. Combined with a widely predicted depression in the turnout of dispirited Democrats, this could easily stamp “ranking minority member” all over Mr. Rangel’s future. But while many of his partisans, unsure of how the unknown corners of the scandal will eventually look to their constituencies, fret over how to distance themselves from the big-creep Bill Clinton while cozying up to the worker-bee Bill Clinton, Mr. Rangel is unabashedly calling the President “our hero” and defending the Clinton Presidency, if not the Clinton, ahem, profligacy, with aplomb.
Then again, he can.
“I have every reason to believe that a continuation of this probe will bring out more black votes than anything the President could do,” said Mr. Rangel, noting the propensity of African-Americans who greet him around the country to “come up to me and say, ‘Make sure you protect the President …’ There is such a sensitivity to persecution, which poor folks and especially black folks have felt, and that is a targeted mission to get somebody, politically and personally.”
There is also clearly a sensitivity to the vagaries and vulnerabilities of life under a Republican Congress. Those who have been wondering about the ecstatic post-Monica job-approval ratings for a President whose pre-Monica press evinced considerable frustration at an agenda that seemed rather big on school uniforms and Buddy the dog need look no further than the Speaker of the House. If the Gingrich revolution, by its scary self-indulgences, saved the beleaguered President after 1994, it is clearly a key part of what is saving him now. This is true for a variety of Clinton constituencies, but nowhere more true than among the voters Mr. Rangel is trying to stir.
“When the Republicans shut down the Government and the President took them on, his numbers went up dramatically among African-Americans, and they’ve never come down,” said Democratic pollster Ron Lester. “In ’95 and ’96, the focus became much clearer. The lines became much sharper in terms of the difference between Democrats and Republicans.” Of course, between the North American Free Trade Agreement and the signing of the welfare bill, one might have thought precisely the opposite–but not, apparently, in a world where the Contract With America crowd was allowing the President to play the hero on affirmative action, Head Start, school lunches. In 1996, fully 50 percent of black Republicans voted for Mr. Clinton. This set the stage for a very interesting irony: a President who has, for good or ill but indisputably, served to conservatize some key aspects of the Democratic agenda, enjoys the fervent loyalty of what would be considered, or euphemized, as the party’s liberal base.
“I don’t think it helps to tell people how good you can beg for money,” said Mr. Rangel, but clearly, he begs very well indeed. As of its most recent filing to the Federal Election Commission, his campaign had raised some $850,754. In 1996, the average winner of a Congressional office spent $673,000. With no opponent and months to go, Mr. Rangel has spent some $690,000. Where other candidates seek donations from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Mr. Rangel goes the other way: On June 22, his campaign committee, Rangel for the 106th Congress, gave $30,000. A small price to pay, in his eyes, to inject some political juice into a New York delegation that has suffered the exodus of some of its most senior and-or influential members (as in Floyd Flake, Thomas Manton, Bill Paxon, Susan Molinari, Charles Schumer, Gerald Solomon …)
“We took the President to the dance, and he flirted with those Republican rascals,” Mr. Rangel said. “They insulted him, they have violated him, they’ve ignored what he believes in. Well, we’re going to take the President home.”
For Mr. Clinton, though, it may not be an altogether pleasant trip. Although it’s evoked by a friend, there is a sad truth told by the image of a once-powerful President being carried, like a drunk by his buddies, back into the safe Democratic haven he often shunned when he was strong: Even if– if –Bill Clinton survives with no more scandal of significance, it will not be without incurring political debts he will need the rest of his Presidency to repay. And, boy, does the would-be Ways and Means chairman know it. Mr. Rangel laughed his raspy laugh, as if it were a smokehouse, and not the Congress, that he’s been in since 1970. “We know one thing: He needs us to take him home,” he said.