One day before President Bush addresses the NAACP for the first time during his presidency, two Democratic senators Wednesday urged those attending the meeting to hold the administration accountable for renewing -- and enforcing -- the Voting Rights Act.
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois warned NAACP delegates to be cautious of any civil rights promises Bush offers when speaking to the group today. The senators criticized Republicans for allowing the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act to nearly expire and said the Justice Department had failed to aggressively pursue allegations of disenfranchisement.
"Don't be bamboozled. Don't buy into it," Obama said, trying to anticipate Bush's speech, which is expected to touch upon his support for extending the Voting Rights Act. "It's great if he commits to signing it, but what is critical is the follow-through. You don't just talk the talk, but you also walk the walk."
Democrats have accused the GOP of being slow to renew the Voting Rights Act, hoping to make it an issue in the midterm election, but Republicans responded last week by passing the legislation in the House. The bill is pending in the Senate.
After declining invitations to speak before the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People for the last five years, the president accepted this week. White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush saw the speech as "a moment of opportunity" to emphasize his commitment to civil rights and to heal any rifts that might exist between the GOP and black voters.
"He has an important role to play, not only in making the case for civil rights," Snow said, "but maybe more importantly, the case for unity."
For years, Republicans have sought to earn a greater share of the black vote. In 2004, Bush received 11%, but this year the party is redoubling its efforts and has recruited African American candidates to run for statewide office in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
During a panel discussion at the NAACP convention here, Clinton, Obama and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) repeatedly referred to Bush as the "mystery speaker" and suggested that his decision to speak was politically motivated.