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Why Jackson's Message Makes Electoral Sense

The Running Arguments: A Continuing Series Surveying The Presidential Campaign And Candidates.

May 08, 1988|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel was Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984.

WASHINGTON — Jesse Jackson's chances of becoming his party's presidential nominee faded beyond recognition this week. What has not faded is fear in the party of the havoc Jackson, winning or losing, could cause to Democratic chances this fall. New York's bully mayor, Edward Koch, said publicly during the state's primary what many Democrats have said privately: Jackson is a radical whose message is deadly for the party.

Now there may have been plenty of good reasons for Democrats to vote against Jackson, but his message, particularly his economic message, wasn't one of them. Whatever rash embraces Jackson had with radical political figures, foreign and domestic, should not obscure that what he said struck a responsive chord. For good reason. His economic message was nothing that Democrats have not stood for in the past, nor anything that they couldn't win with this fall. So Democrats would be wise not to throw the message out with the messenger.

Both the impulse and the popularity of Jackson's economic message lie in the Administration's policies of the last seven years. Its tax and spending policies have widened the gap between rich and poor and have pushed the United States from the world's largest creditor to largest debtor. Defense spending skyrocketed while social programs were gutted. And the huge budget deficit produced by the Reagan recklessness has become a club to beat down any attempts at good works trying to solve the housing, job training, health or infrastructure needs of the country.

The conservative tide that brought the Republicans to power is now widely acknowledged to be ebbing. And Jackson's intuitive talent has been to place himself at the forefront of this new political cycle long before the polls showed it was there. His increased success in 1988 over 1984 lay as much in this change in the electorate as in the newly discovered Jackson maturity. As blue-collar Democrats' love affair with Ronald Reagan ended, they have returned to the rhetoric, symbols and goals that they expected from Democratic leaders. And Jackson's message was waiting for them.

This Jackson message was hardly the rantings of an extremist. What's so radical about facing up to the budget deficit by returning corporate taxes to the levels of the late '70s and hiking the taxes of the richest Americans to 38.5%? Was it jingoist to say that "South Koreans did not take jobs from us, G.E. took jobs to them--with government incentives" and to call for removing those incentives? Was there something extremist about expanding health care and education and drug programs, while reducing the defense budget by 10%? Was advocating a "code of conduct" for American businesses and a "bill of rights" for American workers any more than using government to promote fairness in the workplace?

Jackson's message was vintage Democratic. Pointing to the unfairness of the market, the indifference of the rich and powerful and the need for an activist government to meet society's pressing problems--all have been the cutting edge of the Democratic message since the 1930s. If Franklin D. Roosevelt could describe business as becoming a "menace . . . to American society" in 1936 then Jesse Jackson could talk about the economic violence of large multinationals in 1988.

In many ways the messenger obscured his message. Jackson's identification with Third World movements spouting anti-American rhetoric, his association with an anti-Semitic black leader, his own speaking style and background turned the focus on the man rather than on what he said. Yes, it is fair game to question whether Jackson's embrace of extremists disqualified him for office or whether he would prove a dangerous radical in implementing his goals or whether he was simply too inexperienced to govern. These were legitimate issues in the battle for the nomination but they should not now cause his party to miss the lesson of his effort.

Jackson struck a responsive chord as he pointed out the need for change at the end of a Republican cycle, much the way John F. Kennedy did at the end of the Eisenhower Administration. Through Jackson, people recognized flaws of the past and uncertainties of the future; his message most clearly voiced that sentiment.

Many in the party think a Democratic ticket with Jackson on it is unelectable in the fall. What they may be missing is that a ticket without Jackson's message behind it may also be unelectable.

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