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Anyone left? The search for a Clinton challenger in 1996.

In the farm country of western Iowa, where disenchantment with Washington frequently builds into a political cyclone, Bill Clinton has stirred some mighty winds. "Among progressives in Iowa, there's a real frustration with Clinton," says John Norris, a veteran farm activist who knows the political landscape in these parts as well as anyone. "You hear disappointment in people's voices. There's a sense that he hasn't handled the Presidency that well."

The President's support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, along with his stumbles on health care and a host of bread-and-butter issues, have lowered his stock with the family farmers, teachers, and factory workers who form the backbone of the Democratic Party in Iowa and other states.

In the past, Democratic Presidents carrying that sort of baggage into Iowa would have encountered serious rumblings about a challenge from the left. But as Clinton and his aides sweep across the Hawkeye State this spring in preparation for next February's first-in-the-nation caucuses, they are not running into anything like the resistance that Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter met with.

"It's pretty quiet out here," says Norris, who ran Jesse Jackson's 1988 campaign in Iowa. "People just aren't energized the way they were in the past. The frustration with Clinton may be there, but I just don't hear a great clamoring for another candidate. I don't think people are up for that sort of fight."

Norris's observations from Iowa are echoed by activists in other corners of the country. While Clinton's perceived weaknesses have drawn a parade of right-wing firebrands into the Republican Party's Presidential nomination battle, there has been far less activity on Clinton's left flank.

Progressives may have just as many complaints about Clinton as do conservatives, but the movement needed to mount a serious left-wing challenge to the President-either for the Democratic nomination or from an independent in November--has yet to take hold. And as the 1996 political clock begins to speed up, a growing number of activists are wondering it the battle will be joined at all.

"I haven't heard word one about a challenge to Clinton," says Detroit-based labor activist and author Jane Slaughter, who maintains close contact with a network of progressive union and political activists around the country. "There are certainly people who'd like to see a challenge to Clinton, but I haven't heard that sentiment turning into a full-fledged challenge."

"I just don't see a challenge coming," says Joel Rogers, a University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor, who is one of the leaders of the New Party, which has elected several dozen progressive candidates in local races around the country. "The left is so disorganized at this point that I don't see it getting together in time to mount much of a challenge."

Rogers believes the Republican Party's Congressional victories last fall, and the drive by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his minions to implement a radical-right agenda, have actually helped solidify Clinton's position. While the President may vacillate between accommodation and combat with the Republicans, he tends to look good by comparison both with the Congressional leadership and with GOP Presidential prospects like Texas Senator Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan.

"The Contract with America stuff is proving to be a blessing for Clinton," explains Rogers. "No one to the left of Genghis Khan wants President Gramm. And a lot of people are afraid to do anything that might be seen as weakening Clinton."

The New Party argues that the left must rebuild from the grassroots, focusing on local electoral strategies rather than pouring scant resources into an uphill national campaign. Another progressive grouping, Labor Party Advocates, suggests, in the words of proponent Tony Mazzocchi, that "we need to put our emphasis on reshaping the national agenda, not on advancing the cause of a particular candidate."

That sentiment has gained currency since last fall's election results put rightwing Republicans in charge of Congress and an expanded number of state legislatures.

Even among those on the left who despise Clinton, daily battles against Republican assaults on federal and state social welfare, housing, education, and urban-development programs leave little time to worry about a Presidential challenge.

That does not mean, however, that everyone rejects the idea of a progressive campaign against Clinton. In fact, some of the most serious political thinkers on the left argue that if progressives fail to mount a challenge to Clinton they will be squandering a genuine opportunity.

"There's a huge hole there on progressive issues that's not being filled by Clinton, and it's certainly not being filled by the Republicans," says Steve Cobble, who served as national delegate coordinator for Jesse Jackson's 1988 Presidential campaign and is now a political consultant based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "If you look at the polls, the American people are far more progressive than their political leaders, but that impulse can only mean something if there is a candidate who can tap into it."

Who would fit the bill?

Certainly not conservative former Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey--who is considering a Democratic primary challenge on an anti-abortion platform. And certainly not the potential challengers being pitched by Washington pundits.

The prospective Democratic challengers most frequently mentioned by the inside-the-beltway crowd are moderate conservatives such as Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, or centrists such as Bill Bradley of New Jersey and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Kerrey, Bradley, and Gephardt have all denied they are running, and they are unlikely to change course unless a nose dive in the polls makes Clinton look significantly more vulnerable, or--as writer Walter Shapiro speculated in the March issue of Esquire--the President simply pulls himself out of the running, as Lyndon Johnson did in 1968.

When talk turns to the prospects for an independent challenge in November, the pundits, of course, bring up the name of billionaire 1992 candidate Ross Perot, as well as 1992 Democratic candidate Paul Tsongas--who some suggest may run a "deficit-hawk campaign." Former Republican senator and independent governor of Connecticut Lowell Weicker has also stiffed some attention in this department, and actually seems interested in running.

But when it comes to talk of a Clinton challenge from the left, only one name regularly surfaces: Jesse Jackson.

The civil-rights leader whose 1984 and 1988 campaigns energized the left in states as diverse as Vermont and Mississippi is almost universally seen as the one candidate who has the popular appeal and, possibly, the inclination needed to mount a challenge to Clinton as either a Democrat or an independent.

"I can't think of anybody other than Jackson who has the name recognition and the base of support needed to get noticed in 1996," says Slaughter.

Since last November's election, Jackson has been a consistent and passionate foe of the Republican agenda. On the day after the voting, as Clinton spoke of seeking common ground with Gingrich, Jackson was branding the Contract with America the "Contract on America." Long before Congressional Democrats began to formulate a strategy for defending school-lunch and food-stamp programs from GOP assaults, Jackson was calling the left to the barricades.

It was Jackson's Rainbow Coalition that organized the January "Defending Our Family: Strategies for Economic Justice and Hope" conference in Washington, which drew representatives from NOW, the ACLU, the National Education Association, the National Council of La Raza, the Human Rights Campaign Fund, and dozens of other groups.

C-SPAN carried the proceedings of that conference, and The New York Times and other publications gave it extensive coverage, prompting a flurry of speculation about a possible Jackson challenge to Clinton. That speculation was fueled by reports of Jackson's visits to Iowa and New Hampshire--the first caucus and primary states, respectively.

In late February and early March, as the Clinton Administration's support for affirmative-action programs seemed to waver, the Jackson talk grew even louder. Jackson, who has criticized Clinton's approach to the budget, crime, and international-trade agreements, was infuriated by the President's failure to effectively counter a mounting Republican assault on a key plank in the civil-rights platform.

"He's reacting at a time that we need assertive leadership," Jackson said of Clinton. When asked if that meant he was prepared to challenge Clinton, however, Jackson was coy, saying only that "all options are open."

In the January issue of The Progressive, Jackson argued that Clinton must defend the civil-rights and social-justice agenda. "If that does not happen," Jackson said, "then somebody will run in the primaries, and perhaps somebody will run even as an independent."

Might Jackson be that somebody?

So far, the signals are mixed.

While Jackson has been contacting old supporters and making the rounds in key Democratic caucus and primary states, some of those closest to him say the civil-rights leader is merely using every tool at his disposal to pressure Clinton to do the right thing.

If Clinton does move toward more progressive positions--as he has done in recent months with his support of a minimum-wage hike and with his issuance of an executive order limiting federal business with companies that hire strikebreakers--he may be able to reduce the potential base of support for a Jackson challenge.

"If the President defends the nomination of Henry Foster, if he begins to really fight some of the items in the Contract, if he uses the veto effectively, I think it will completely change the image of Bill Clinton," argues Senator Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, a progressive who shares many of Jackson's views but remains supportive of Clinton. "If the President doesn't take a more aggressive stance on these issues, then he certainly increases the likelihood of a challenge."

While Jackson, more than most potential Clinton challengers, tends to see the advancement of a social and economic agenda as the ultimate goal of any candidacy, he faces political pressures of his own.

If Jackson were to run, either as a Democrat or an independent, a poor showing could significantly undermine his credibility. In addition, he could be blamed for weakening Clinton's position--much as conservative challenger Pat Buchanan was blamed for undermining George Bush's 1992 reelection campaign.

Cobble dismisses such concerns--particularly in regard to a primary race. "A primary challenge doesn't make a sitting President weak," he says. "Sitting Presidents are challenged because they've had unsuccessful first terms."

But Jackson aides say the fifty-four-year-old preacher is not inclined to make a third bid for the presidency unless he sees the potential for the candidacy either to prevail or to significantly embolden the progressive community.

With his name recognition and his connections around the country, Jackson has more flexibility than other prospective challengers to Clinton.

"He has the luxury, in a way that others don't, to wait longer," Bob Borosage, a strategist on Jackson's 1988 campaign, recently explained to Washington reporters. "He has the base."

As long as Jackson remains undecided about a run, other potential candidates are essentially left in limbo--knowing that a Jackson candidacy would instantly obscure their efforts.

If Jackson should opt out, attention would likely turn to Ralph Nader. The consumer advocate remains one of the most identifiable and respected figures in American public affairs, and he has been among the most vocal critics of Clinton, particularly on issues such as NAFTA and GATT.

"Basically Clinton follows the power of the global corporations, who are his masters," Nader said last fall during the GATT debate.

Nader has said he believes Clinton is "certain" to face some sort of progressive challenge--most likely in the November election--and adds that he would probably support such a challenge. But when asked if he would be the candidate, Nader says no.

Like Nader, former California Governor Jerry Brown is passionately critical of Clinton. Brown sees him as a pawn of corporate interests and big-money campaign contributors. But so far the three-time Presidential candidate has given little indication that he might respond to a "Draft Jerry Brown for President in 1996" campaign launched by supporters of his 1992 candidacy.

The Draft Brown effort is spearheaded by Mark Elsis, an articulate and well-organized environmentalist from Elmhurst, New York, who argues that Brown "is the only politician who doesn't have to placate anyone."

The Draft Brown movement has supporters in a number of states, many of whom have responded to advertisements placed in progressive publications around the country. Elsis says most callers want Brown to run an insurgent independent campaign, and he is certain they will eventually convince the reluctant former governor to make the race.

"It's like the movie Field of Dreams," says Elsis. "If we want Jerry Brown to be President, we can do it."

Progressives around the country mention other potential candidates as well--including Representative Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist who is the only independent member of the House, and Representative Ron Dellums, California Democrat.

There have also been suggestions that a "Ieft personality," such as writer Barbara Ehrenreich, might be a strong candidate--much as Buchanan has parlayed his position as a columnist and television pundit into two Presidential runs. Ehrenreich, a respected author and columnist, and one of the original members of Democratic Socialists of America, could have a ready-made base of support.

Some progressive activists around the country say they are less concerned about who the candidate is than they are about the prospect that any challenge to Clinton might pull the President to the left.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss notes in his new biography of the President, Clinton has throughout his political career bent with the political winds--easily blown to the left or right.

It is this reality, some argue, that makes a progressive challenge in 1996 most attractive.

"Clinton has to have a push of some kind from the left," says Mike Konopacki, a political cartoonist who works closely with unions and grassroots groups around the country. "He responds to pressure and if all the pressure is coming from the right, then he'll move farther and farther to the right."

Ultimately, says Iowan John Norris, that push to the left could save Clinton from himself. If a progressive primary challenge forces the President to the left, Norris suggests, Clinton's fall campaign could then excite the great mass of low-income and working-class voters who sat home in November 1994 and allowed the Republicans to win.

Steve Cobble agrees.

"You can't go to Clinton and say, `Do this because it's the right thing to do,'" Cobble argues. "You have to raise enough hell on his flank so that he responds."

Cobble admits that a progressive challenge to a sitting Democratic President poses myriad risks. Frustration and vilification are to be expected. But it's important to stand up for principle.

"We progressives should be careful about spending all our time predicting what will happen," Cobble argues. "Instead, I think, we should just do what is right."

John Nichols is an editorial writer for The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He covered the 1984, 1988, and 1992 Presidential campaigns, and he interviewed Jesse Jackson in the January issue of The Progressive.
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Author:Nichols, John
Publication:The Progressive
Date:May 1, 1995
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