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Democrats Aim to Deal Jackson In

The Running Arguments, A Continuing Series Surveying The Presidental Campaign And Candidates

March 27, 1988|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984

WASHINGTON — Forget about a brokered convention. It makes nice copy in the spring, but the closer we get to July the less likely it becomes. Forces in the Democratic Party will make sure that Atlanta remains what conventions have become: the launching point of the general election, not the climax of the nominating fight.

Some brokering is already going on--witness Sen. Bill Bradley's endorsement of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. But the major brokering will be between the June 7 California primary and, say, July 4. The atmosphere will be intense, the sounds of arms cracking will echo across the land and bad feelings may linger between the candidates. But the key question remains whether Jesse Jackson will be included on the ticket or as a kingmaker--or left out entirely. Here are two likely ways these options might unfold:

The Dukakis Sweep: Dukakis goes on a roll in the remaining primaries and caucuses, winning New York and Pennsylvania, along with three of the four last big contests (Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana and California). He winds up the primary season with about 1,450 delegates.

If this happens, the Duke would be unstoppable. A large number of the 650 "super delegates" would throw their support to him, pushing him up to around 1,800 delegates. He would then go to delegates pledged to candidates no longer in the race, such as Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois or Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. The 200 or so needed delegates would come to him fairly easily.

Dukakis does not have to offer any other candidate the vice presidency, and is not dependent on any active candidate to put him over the top. Jackson's role in this scenario could be minimal, which in turn could cause problems at the convention.

Mix and Match : In this other scenario Jackson is stronger and therefore must be dealt with. The primaries end with Dukakis leading by only a few hundred delegates. A third major candidate (Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee?) has emerged as an alternative to Dukakis. Jackson is second with approximately 1,000 delegates and the No. 3 man winds up with about 800. Dukakis, to avoid putting Jackson on the ticket, offers the spot to the third man, trading him the vice presidency for his delegates.

The bind for Dukakis here is Jackson. If he goes to Jackson for approval of the ticket he makes him a kingmaker, a charge likely to be raised in the fall election. If he cuts Jackson out, Dukakis will end up paying a major political price.

In a subset of this scenario, no third candidate emerges; Dukakis and Jackson divide the remaining delegates through the California primary. If Jackson stays within 200 or 300 delegates of Dukakis, or beats him, he would either become the vice presidential nominee, a major power broker or the presidential nominee. Jackson becomes a kingmaker and Dukakis has to accept the baggage that comes with that.

Anything short of an outright majority of Dukakis delegates is therefore likely to spell trouble for the Democrats. The Jackson forces are stronger this year; the cost for excluding him will be high. Jackson delegates will cause major floor fights over the platform on prime-time TV and black leaders could threaten to stay home during the fall elections. The flip side of including Jesse involves other political costs in facing George Bush later--not the least of which is the likely weakening of support among white conservative Southerners.

Unlike 1984, brokering this year will involve candidate-to-candidate discussions. In 1984, Harold L. Ickes and I stayed up all night with Jackson operatives Richard G. Hatcher and Ronald W. Walters to reach an agreement on platform and rules fights centering on the threshold percentage to qualify for delegates in the primaries. We left early in the morning, thinking we had a deal. When internal opposition within the Jackson camp undercut the pact, I was able to go directly to Jackson, cementing the understanding. The outlook for such bargaining this year is slim. Things acceptable to Jackson in '84 are probably not as easily swallowed in '88. His leverage is that much greater.

There is good news and bad news for anyone brokering with Jackson this year. The good news is that he wants to run again in 1992. Jackson needs to avoid a Democratic loss hung around his neck, and to be positioned to pick up where his campaign left off. To ensure this he and his supporters need to be active backers of the ticket in November.

Jackson's agenda, however, may not be his delegates' agenda. He'll be much less concerned with platform and rules issues than in 1984. Jackson's interests lie in building his electoral base via national TV coverage. His activist, issue-oriented delegates will have priorities other than future contests.

The most intense negotiations at the convention may end up being between Jackson and his own supporters. Jackson at the convention may yet develop a sneaking admiration for Ronald Reagan's ability to hold on to militant followers while reaching out to the party mainstream.

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