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Jackson: Off Ticket While Ticked Off

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

July 17, 1988|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, was campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

WASHINGTON — As the Democratic Convention opens there is only one thing sure about what Jesse Jackson will do: He'll give a hell of a speech to the party. That stem-winder will, however, mask other problems between the Michael S. Dukakis and Jackson forces lying just below the surface.

A combination of foul-ups and fantasies has resulted in bad blood between the nominee and the runner-up going into the convention. The Dukakis people's inability to get to Jackson before the press did--reporters told Jackson about the choice for the veep position--violated a cardinal rule for dealing with him: Never embarrass Jackson in public.

Jackson compounded the problem by fixating on the vice presidency. He also demonstrated unusually lousy timing by announcing, after weeks of ambivalence, that he would accept the vice presidency hours before the announcement that Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas would instead be the choice.

This unpalatable mix means that the floor fights in Atlanta will be louder, the negotiations over Jackson's role in the fall campaign will be tougher and the convention's end will not resolve the continuing fight over "what Jackson wants" out of the election of '88.

For me this is, to quote Yogi Berra, like deja vu all over again. One week before the 1984 convention, the Democratic nominee, Walter F. Mondale, met with Jackson, expecting his endorsement. He didn't get it. Instead they had a bad meeting followed by difficult negotiations, and not until Labor Day were things finally worked out. The same pattern may prevail this time.

It's easy to forget that these tensions are occurring against a background of Dukakis' politically astute choice for vice president. The governor took the once-traditional Democratic route of heading south and conservative for a running mate. Realistically, Jackson never had a chance of being on the ticket. The Dukakis campaign's inability to notify Jackson in time is a monumental misstep, but understandable for anyone who has been in a presidential campaign a week before the nominating convention. The pressure and work is too overwhelming not to make major errors.

Jackson, too, has responsibility for the turn of the screw in the vice presidential process. The resentment among Jackson supporters because their man was not chosen came after Jackson raised the stakes of the selection. He spent the month of June focusing on the No. 2 spot. Along the way, he lost good will within the party and negotiating room with Dukakis. In retrospect, Dukakis probably should have told Jackson early on that he wasn't going to be on the ticket.

Jackson will do what he has to do in Atlanta to keep his issues in front of the convention and himself in the spotlight. But ultimately Jackson's interests lie in being seen as a unifier of the Democratic Party and a major reason for a victory in the fall. In the end he'll work things out with the party. Jackson may sound like a preacher, but he plays politics like a pro.

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