Both Parties See an Opportunity : Apartheid Generates Heat as Political Issue in U.S.

Times Political Writer

“This is mainly an elitist issue,” complained American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene, seeking to brush aside demands for tougher U.S. action against the apartheid government of South Africa. And indeed the issue does seem remote from the day-to-day concerns of most Americans, as well as from a Congress faced with towering problems of trade, taxes and budget.

Yet the long-smoldering dispute over apartheid has generated surprising heat across the American political spectrum--heat intense enough to force President Reagan into a rare retreat on foreign policy. And while Reagan’s belated decision to impose modest sanctions may have spared him a defeat in Congress, the national debate is likely to continue.

The issue of South Africa policy turns out to be freighted with symbolic significance for both political parties. For quite different but equally compelling reasons, Republicans and Democrats alike see the fight against apartheid as a valuable political opportunity.

The issue gives Republicans a chance to dispel the suspicion of racism. It offers Democrats an opportunity to heal divisions between blacks and whites in their own ranks without aggravating the party’s already severe problems with white voters generally.

“I think one of the great challenges to the Republican Party for the rest of the decade is to prove unequivocally that it is opposed to racism and that it is pro-freedom and not just anti-Soviet and I think South Africa combines both aspects of the challenge,” said Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). He has been a leader of a group of young conservative Republican House members who broke with President Reagan’s policy of constructive engagement and called for sanctions against South Africa.


The point for the Republicans is not so much to convert black voters, few of whom are likely to join them in the foreseeable future, but rather to hold on to some of the independent-minded white constituencies that supported Reagan in his 1984 landslide victory. “Most of the white middle class and most of the younger generation are opposed to racism of any kind,” Gingrich said. “There’s a broad consensus for individual freedom without regard to race.”

As Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) sees it, support for sanctions offers Republicans a chance to define what they hope will be their emerging majority status on the national political scene. “We’re putting together an approach to foreign policy that integrates concern for human rights into policy that’s protective of American interests,” he said. “But we have to have some consistency. South Africa is important at least for that reason.”

‘Tactics May Differ’

Pointing to Republican support for anti-Communist insurgencies in Nicaragua and Cambodia, he said: “Tactics may differ, but the same principle should apply to South Africa that applies to Nicaragua and Cambodia.”

The political symbolism of sanctions has helped Young Turk conservatives such as Gingrich and Weber find common ground with more traditional centrist Republicans with whom they often disagree on economic policy and on so-called social issues. Just as Gingrich and Weber backed sanctions in the House, centrists such as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, helped pressure the President to reverse himself and adopt sanctions of his own last week.

And even after Reagan’s announcement that he would impose limited sanctions, some centrist Republicans joined Democrats in voting for an unsuccessful motion to stop a filibuster and force a vote on the issue. In addition to not wanting to offend moderate white middle-class voters with an aversion to racism, some of these Republicans from Northern industrial states with big minority populations want the chance to win black voters, or at least avoid the risk of antagonizing them so seriously they would mobilize to back Democratic candidates.

‘Everything to Lose’

“If you’re one of the 22 Republican senators running for reelection next year, you can’t afford to take the chance of opposing sanctions and stirring up a hornet’s nest,” said one black Democratic congressman active in the drive to enact sanctions. “There is everything to lose by not supporting sanctions.”

Democrats tried to make sure that Republicans who failed to back sanctions paid a political price. “The Republican Party . . . must decide whether it wants to be the party of Lincoln or the party of apartheid,” warned Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, one of his party’s most vigorous champions of sanctions.

For their own part, Democrats say that the dramatic symbolism of South Africa is helping to cement some of the chinks in their battered but still serviceable coalition. “For us this is a unifying issue,” said Ann Lewis, national director of Americans for Democratic Action and former political director of the Democratic National Committee.

She noted that Reps. William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania, a black, and Stephen J. Solarz of New York, a Jew, have been among the leaders in the fight for sanctions in the House--at least a partial palliative for the bitterness between blacks and Jews engendered by Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential candidacy and exacerbated and sustained by the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, a Jackson supporter.

Jews Back Sanctions

Other Democrats point out that Jewish civic and religious leaders have been out front in the drive for sanctions, as have leaders of the AFL-CIO, another powerful component within the old Democratic coalition that has had disagreements with blacks in the past over such issues as affirmative action.

“We haven’t lost a Democratic senator on a single roll-call vote on this issue all week,” said Bill Carrick, political director on Kennedy’s staff. “This issue pulls everybody together, right and left, North and South, blacks and Jews.”

Contributing to the harmony in Democratic ranks is widespread public opposition to apartheid. In a Harris poll last January, 76% of those surveyed disapproved of the system under which South Africa’s white minority dominates the country, while only 9% approved.

42% in Poll Want Sanctions

Yet on the issue of sanctions itself, the public is much more closely divided. A Gallup Poll taken for Newsweek last month showed that 42% of those interviewed favored the idea of the United States bringing such pressure to bear on South Africa to change its racial policies, while 39% were against it. And some analysts believe that public sentiments on South Africa are relatively superficial, contrasted with attitudes on such bread and butter issues as taxes and trade.

“South Africa is mostly an abstraction to the average voter,” contended John Petrocik, UCLA political scientist. “He knows there’s something bad about apartheid, but he doesn’t care much about it.”

Sanctions advocates disagree. “I think it may have been true a year ago that this was only a Washington issue,” said Rep. Solarz. “But the brutal realities of apartheid have been brought home every night on television and this is rapidly becoming a major concern.”

Even though the apartheid controversy does not directly touch the lives of American voters as some economic issues do, it does have considerable emotional pull. “It touches people here very, very deeply, because the memory of the civil rights movement in this country is very strong,” said Arizona Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt.

He Plans Petition

“It’s a big issue in Arizona,” Babbitt added, pointing out that his state’s university system recently had agreed to divest itself of holdings in companies that do business in South Africa. And Babbitt plans to wire all of his fellow governors, in both parties, to join in organizing a petition campaign protesting South Africa’s racial policies.

“I think this has become an issue where there is a clear, high moral ground, a clearly superior position to Reagan,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. “And it can fill a vacuum in post-1984 politics to become a meaningful and aggressive issue.”

Some supporters of the President’s position on South Africa contend that one reason he has been forced to give ground is that he has not been able to match the moral appeal of his critics. “I think the issue has been improperly framed by the Administration,” said Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, a grass-roots lobbying group. Reagan has argued that sanctions would cause economic harm to the South African blacks they are supposed to help but, said Phillips, “you can’t defeat a moral argument with a pragmatic argument.”

A Communist Takeover

Phillips contended that the Administration could defend its policies more effectively if it stressed the idea that sanctions against the regime of South African President P.W. Botha could lead to a Communist takeover of the country, with its vital natural resources and strategic location. “I think the issue should be whether South Africa will become a Western asset or a Soviet asset.”

This is the case that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), direct mail specialist Richard Viguerie and other right-wing supporters of the President’s policy have tried to make. “The issue is whether we are going to do things that will turn over the whole . . . of South Africa to the Soviet Union,” Helms declared last week in opposing the sanctions legislation before the Senate.

Warning of the danger of Soviet encroachment in South Africa has made it possible for them to appeal to the anti-communism of their own supporters and to be loyal to the President, while avoiding the stigma of racism. But it is not an argument that so far seems to have much appeal beyond the ranks of hard-line conservative organizations.

‘Top Priority Issue’

Still, Rep. Weber is concerned about the impact on the conservative movement if Viguerie, Moral Majority leader the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other right-wing supporters of the President’s South African policy decide to make it what he calls “a cutting edge, top-priority issue.” If that should happen, Weber added, “then we are going to have a split of the right on the issue. That’s the downside.”

Any such argument from the pro-Reagan forces on South Africa would be based on fears of communism rather than an attempt to appeal to vestiges of white racism, Weber said he believes. In fact, politicians involved in the issue say there is little evidence of racist sentiment on the issue, even in Deep South states that not so many years ago staunchly defended their own system of segregation.

“You look at any public opinion poll (and) you see there’s a fairly significant racist segment in American life,” said Georgia’s Gingrich. “And you still have generations out there who grew up under segregation, but I think it’s all changing gradually. I got much less racial mail on South Africa than I did anti-Communist mail.”

Seeming to bear out Gingrich’s point about changing racial attitudes, Kennedy’s aide Carrick, himself a native of South Carolina, cites national poll figures which show that Southern whites 45 years old and over disapprove of economic sanctions against South Africa by margins of more than 2 to 1. But white Southerners from 18 to 44 who were interviewed approved of sanctions by a margin of about 3 to 2.