To respond to Peter, something is up. There is a very real sense among Black voters that they have been neglected by the Democratic party. The question I have heard among Black voters directed toward the Democratic party is roughly "what have you done for me lately?" One strategist I spoke with mentioned that Black voters are aware and are motivated by the fact that Blacks have done better under Bush than they did under Clinton. For all the rhetoric of the Clinton administration, there was not a Black Secretary of State or a Black National Security Advisor. Combine this with Republican candidates in this last election who were difficult to villify, and you get low Black voter turnout in key states.
The more interesting question is what this means for the future of the Democratic party. As I have mentioned previously, I think the party is going to lunge leftward, and they will make a hard appeal to what they view as the minority base of the party.
But how will they do this? One likely move will be to place Black politicians in more powerful positions. In this regard, Fords bid for Minority Leader now--even if predetermined to be unsuccessful--is strategically a good one. He has cast himself on the national stage, and he is poised to benefit from a party that will be hungry for able and ambitious Black leaders. He has also done his best to cleanse himself of any affiliation with the extreme Cynthia McKinney elements of the Black Caucus--showing that there is room for moderate Blacks in the Democratic party. This will go far in appealing to suburban White voters, with whom the rhetoric of the Sharptons and the McKinneys simply does not resonate.
The second area where the Democrats will attempt to make inroads with minority voters is somewhat speculative, but here it is. The Supreme Court has been asked to hear the University of Michigan affirmative action case this year. After having side-stepped a similar case from Texas six years ago, it seems relatively clear that they will take this one. In so doing, it is likely that the Court will issue a decision at least partially undermining a basic nostrum of left-wing ideology: that diversity is a good in itself which deserves the highest legal protection. If this happens, look for the Democratic party to seize upon this as an issue. I predict a call for a new Civil Rights Act--call it the Civil Rights Act of 2004--which will seek to circumvent the decision by forcing colleges to take into account socio-economic factors or other criteria designed to achieve predetermined levels of diversity.
Finally, the Democratic party is going to seek to forge even stronger alliances with minority advocacy groups. This is particularly true because of McCain-Feingold. Once again, a bit of legal prognostication: McCain-Feingold is currently being challenged in federal court, and is all-but-destined to make an appearance before the Supremes. The most vulnerable provision of the act--the provision which clearly contradicts existing Supreme Court precedent--is the so-called Wellstone Amendment, which limits the ability of advocacy groups to run ads 60 days before an election. This provision will be struck down. That said, there are numerous provisions which impair parties, and the odds are that not all of these provisions will be struck down. This already would suggest that advocacy groups will be playing a larger role, but theres more. McCain-Feingold was nearly defeated because of opposition by the Black caucus, which rightly feared that the bill would impair get-out-the-vote efforts. In order to secure the cooperation of the caucus, language was added that permits Congressmen to solicit funds directly for advocacy groups for get-out-the-vote activities. When you combine the fact that the restrictions on advocacy groups will likely be struck down, and these same groups are given special dispensation by the act, you get a new political world in which advocacy groups take on the role previously occupied by parties. Thus, McCain-Feingold doesnt end soft money, it just redirects it to factions.
In this climate, the Democratic party will become weaker, while minority advocacy groups will likely have the opportunity to act as the de facto Democratic party. In order to do so on a broader scale, however, they will need to have a broader outreach than the narrow racial interests which have characterized some of their most outspoken leaders. This is why Fords moderate statements are important, and this is why he may be poised to lead the coming Democratic party.