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Sorry state of Democratic politics

Paul M. Green


By the time this column is published we will most likely know whether U.S. Sen. Alan J. Dixon will have a Democratic primary challenger in March. The cause for this challenge was Dixon's aye vote on the Senate confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. If a credible challenger emerges, it will come from a group of liberal female Democrats outraged over Dixon's support of Thomas.

As of this writing (November 21) Carol Moseley Braun, Cook County recorder of deeds, appears to be the leading potential anti-Dixon candidate. An African-American and a former state legislator, she has been contacting party and community leaders in the Chicago area.

The following is neither an examination of the Supreme Court confirmation controversy, sexual harrassment, women in government nor a defense of Dixon; rather, it is a blunt assessment of the sorry state of Democratic politics in Illinois. Given the fact that Illinois is a microcosm of the nation, this analysis is probably applicable to other states as well.

For almost two decades, Illinois Democrats have been living on borrowed political time. Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Illinois, and Dan Walker in 1972 was their most recent gubernatorial winner. Demographically, the state's shifting population pattern has found Republican regions growing and Democratic areas declining, especially in Chicago. Economically, manufacturing job losses and service employment gains have left once powerful Democratic allies in the trade and industrial labor movement weak and ineffective. Socially, the race issue has splintered the party's bedrock Chicago vote. Finally, the Democrats have lost their organizational leadership edge over Republicans in Illinois elections.

In spite of all of the above, Illinois Democrats have survived and at times thrived during the past two decades. Why?

In 1974 reaction to Watergate and Nixon gave Illinois Democrats an unexpected surge of political strength.

In 1981 the luck of the draw gave Democrats control of Illinois legislative redistricting and dominance of the General Assembly for the decade.

The question that must be asked is what political gain can Illinois Democrats accomplish by attacking one of their two superstars?

Except for Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar, Republican statewide candidates have been generally uninspiring and often poorly funded. The same is true for GOP candidates for major Cook County offices.

Two far southern Illinois Democrats, U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Makanda and Dixon of Belleville, have been able to combine their strong downstate roots with the traditional Democratic vote base in Chicago to give Illinois two Democratic U.S. senators. In bad Democratic years each has acted as the "stopper" to potential Republican statewide political sweeps. For exam-

38/December 1991/Illinois Issues

ple, in 1980 Republican Ronald Reagan crunched President Jimmy Carter in Illinois by over 376,000 votes, yet U.S. Senate candidate Dixon defeated Republican Dave O'Neal by over 600,000 votes. Local Demcratic candidates benefitted immensely in that election from Dixon's stopping of straight party votes, especially in suburban Cook County where then state Sen. Richard M. Daley won the state's attorney election in a close race against Republican incumbent Bernard Carey.

Putting it bluntly, Dixon and Simon have been the only two Illinois Democrats able to win a major statewide contest for two decades. The question that must be asked is what political gain can Illinois Democrats accomplish by attacking one of their two superstars? Punishment, revenge, anger? These may be rhetorically pleasing motives, but in politics they are self-defeating.

Democrats, who are upset with the national politics of the 1980s and early 1990s and are worried about a right-wing surge on such social issues as abortion, are fasting their time pointing fingers at Dixon or Thomas. As Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said in closing the Thomas confirmation vote, "The pro-choice people list when George Bush was elected." A Thomas defeat would simply have meant neither pro-life Supreme Court nomination from Bush.

In sum it is easy to understand the frusration of many Democrats, especially women, over Dixon's vote on Thomas. Obviously no candidate should be above voter pressure, persuasion or ridicule, but the suicidal tendencies of some Democratic party leaders in Illinois and elsewhere is amazing. Blasted in the last three presidential elections, unable to promote a coherent foreign or domestic program and finding their base vote withering away, the last thing a party like this needs to do is bring down one of its winners. Unless critics of Dixon and other Democratic senators can demonstrate the possibility of a realistic victory coalition, they are playing into the hands of their worst enemies. Fortunately for the Democrats, the Republicans except in presidential races remain largely incapable of taking advantage of this ongoing Democratic chaos.

Paul M. Green is director of the Institute for public Policy and Administration, Governors State University. He is also the current chairman of the City Club of Chicago's executive board, serving a one-year term, effective October 15.

December 1991 /Illinois Issues/39

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