Opinion | Why A ‘Sister Souljah Moment’ Won’t Save Biden
Clinton’s polling didn’t actually change much after his tack to the center on race. Biden should ignore the pundits calling for a 1990s reboot.
Joe Biden needs a “Sister Souljah Moment.” At least, that’s according to the quickly congealing conventional wisdom in Washington. That is, Biden and Democrats are in dire danger of losing control of Congress next year, and the one thing that could save them would be by bashing someone to Biden’s left on matters of race.
The latest call came from Max Boot at the Washington Post, but he’s hardly the only columnist to make such a plea. Earlier this month, Kyle Smith at National Review called upon Biden to denounce critical race theory as a Sister Souljah Moment. Jacob Heilbrunn at National Interest made the same request. George Will urged Biden to have a Sister Souljah Moment back in August of 2020 to distance himself and his party from the “Defund the Police” crowd. Mostly, these calls are coming from conservative anti-Trump voices, seeking to make Biden and Democrats more conservative on race and, theoretically, more acceptable to the general population.
It seems to be an article of faith that this sort of tactic is a crucial one for Democrats, particularly as the party appears to find itself on the backfoot in the culture war. But the polling evidence suggests no such thing. In fact, the move could backfire on Biden by alienating a core part of his base.
For those too young to remember, Sister Souljah was briefly a famous hip-hop star and activist who gave an interview shortly after the LA riots of 1992 in which she suggested violence against white people. Rev. Jesse Jackson then invited her to speak at a Rainbow Coalition event. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, then running for president, spoke at the same event the following night, and used the opportunity to harshly criticize both Souljah and Jackson, she for her racism and he for giving her views a platform.
The context of all this was that many Democrats, by 1992, had decided their party had lost the three previous presidential elections in part because of the perception that it was too much in the thrall of “special interests” generally and Jesse Jackson and Black civil rights activists specifically.
The party has a long history of both advocating for civil rights and then blaming that advocacy for its losses; prominent voices within the Democratic coalition have frequently warned that promoting the needs of Black Americans would harm the party’s prospects. Clinton’s maneuver was seen as a way to demonstrate his and his party’s rightward shift in a ploy for electability. As Perry Bacon, Jr. noted recently, Clinton’s speech and later actions “were intended to signal to white voters that Democrats, like Republicans, viewed some of America’s racial inequalities as rooted in self-inflicted problems in Black communities, as opposed to discriminatory policies and systemic racism.”
It is striking the degree to which the Sister Souljah Moment has been accepted as a viable and reliable strategy for white Democratic politicians. As with many electoral narratives, it is rarely tested with hard evidence. But if we actually look at Clinton’s polling surrounding the events as they happened, it’s difficult to perceive a Souljah effect.
Trial-heat polls from the summer of 1992 show a rather complex and dynamic political environment. Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination at the beginning of June. Souljah spoke at the Rainbow Coalition event on June 13th, and Clinton gave his speech condemning her the next day. Clinton named Al Gore as his running mate at the beginning of July, and the Democratic Convention was held in mid-July. Further complicating things was the quixotic third-party candidacy of Ross Perot. The independent businessman was at the height of his popularity in June, actually leading the presidential field for several weeks. However, thanks to increased media scrutiny, his popularity faded, and he withdrew from the race (temporarily, it turned out) in mid-July. Teasing out the consequences of a single episode is therefore difficult, but some conclusions can be drawn.
The trend, shown in the chart, suggests that Clinton became slightly more popular at the end of June. Is that because he criticized Souljah? Possibly. Is it because Perot’s popularity was waning? Probably. Are we talking about pretty modest changes anyway? Definitely.
Clinton would go on to become much more popular in July after Perot’s withdrawal, and with the unifying message of a successful Democratic convention, he pulled into the polling lead in mid-July and never lost that lead for the remainder of the contest. Clinton went on to defeat Bush by 6 points in the popular vote.
How did Clinton succeed where Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis failed before him? Well in large part, it was the economy, stupid. Carter was blamed for a brutal recession and high inflation in 1980; Mondale was trying to unseat incumbent Ronald Reagan during a record boom in 1984; and Dukakis sought to unmoor the Republicans during the solid growth year of 1988. By contrast, the 1992 economy was shaky, still emerging from a sharp recession the previous year, and the media coverage of the economy was relentlessly negative throughout 1992.
Is it possible that Clinton got some help on Election Day from his bashing of Souljah five months earlier? It’s possible, but unlikely. Campaign effects just generally don’t last that long. It was a very old story by then, and it’s hard to even discern much of an effect when the story was fresh. Polling that year shows that voters were more likely to trust Clinton on issues related to racial politics, but that was true prior to the Souljah moment, as well.
So why is it important to interrogate this piece of political lore three decades later? Because clearly many opinion leaders take it as an article of faith that a Democratic president can make himself more popular by bashing advocates for racial justice. The evidence doesn’t really support this, but they make the argument anyway.
Boot is right that the stakes are very high right now for both the Democrats and for American democracy in general. However, it’s far from clear that Democrats would gain anything by slamming a Black Lives Matter activist or trashing adherents of critical race theory. Indeed it would only signal to Black people within the party that their leadership considers them expendable when times get tough.
In midterm elections, turnout typically suffers among key Democratic constituencies like people of color and young voters. Biden symbolically casting aside people of color would probably only add to that problem — particularly if it’s just taking a page from 1990s punditry that may not have actually worked in the first place.