Jackson's challenge: creating a Democratic majority.
It was all very jolly. Bush had his burger, Jackson the tuna sandwich. They talked about Jackson's agenda: the farm foreclosures, sanctions against South Africa, protection of Medicare and Medicaid, White House support for changes in the Civil Rights Commission, respect for the Congressional Black Caucus, plus drugs, crime and parole plans for James Earl Ray, the killer of Martin Luther King Jr. After lunch, the two men cavorted before the press like Scotties in a whiskey ad, and later both staffs pronounced themselves pleased as punch.
Dukakis always claimed Jesse was "difficult," an aide to Jackson recalled, "but Dukakis never called him. Bush called and the two got along just fine." It's probably true that Bush thought he might co-opt Jackson and his supporters simply by socializing with him, or that he could use Jackson to play Democratic factions against one another. But on balance Jackson gained more than he could have lost by lunching. The meeting (which was held a few days before an icy date between Bush and Dukakis) helped Jackson establish himself as the leader of the Democratic Party, at least in its extraparliamentary mode, and as the recognized spokesman for the progressive constituency that he mobilized - and which the Dukakis campaign briefly wooed and soon betrayed. Jackson was also able to show he is not flagging in what seems a permanent campaign to reshape the party and, not incidentally, assert his command of it.
The tension between the man and the movement he heads still forms the central contradiction of the Jackson project, but Jackson seems so far to have avoided the paralyzing battles over the nature of leadership that have afflicted both black and left politics for decades. At least no one is now claiming, as many once did, that Jackson has no "follow-through" in his political swing. Not since William Jennings Bryan has a losing presidential candidate stayed so active and so visible after defeat, and Jackson was not even a final candidate. Other politicians who built quasi-social movements as the bases of their campaigns abdicated leadership as soon as the votes were counted. Eugene McCarthy seemed to give up even before the Democratic convention in 1968, although he was leading in delegates. George McGovern remained available for presidential politics but disdainful of grass-roots involvement after the debacle of 1972.
Jackson has kept up a murderous pace of speaking and rallying and back-room politicking. He's been in Iowa (site of the first 1992 caucuses) with the farmers, New York with the homeless, Chicago in the thick of the upcoming mayoral race. He spoke in a synagogue on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, baptized Mike Tyson and would have met Gorbachev had there been no Caucasus earthquake. The press alternately neglects and rediscovers him. Few reporters, if any, follow his peregrinations to the hinterland, the rallies, marches and pep talks. Grass-roots organizing is not "happening" in mainstream media consciousness.
But when Jackson interacts with the political elites, the media awakens. "The Jackson Problem," bannered Time earlier this month over a story that tried to explain why the Democrats can't win with Jackson, or live without him. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun reported that "some of the hand-wringing Democrats may be wondering whether there is some way" to revive the "white primary" -the electoral device that effectively disenfranchised blacks in the South for a century. The "problem" now, of course, is that blacks vote for Jackson instead of a Southern white who could presumably appeal to the racist vote in the general election.
Jackson has intervened in the fight over the future of the Democratic Party insofar as it relates ot the issues of race and ideology, but he remains an outsider who can threaten rather than bargain for a piece of political power. Since the election, the struggle has centered on the party chairmanship. The first target was Paul Kirk, who spent much of the past four years destroying the independence of the various progressive caucuses within the party -- and organizing against Jackson. When he resigned, Jackson moved to support the candidacy of Ron Brown, who was Kirk's former deputy (and one-time aide to Ted Kennedy) and who had come over to the Jackson campaign in its last months.
"Brown has been a spear-carrier for the Democrats for so long that no one realized that he was a black man," one Rainbow Coalition activist said. Suddenly he was a pariah. "Many of the same white liberals like Ted Kennedy, Bill Bradley and Chris Dodd, who praised me for finally signing on with Jesse last May because they said I would be a calm, stabilizing presence, have been completely silent," Brown noted at one point. Jackson rushed to his defense, charging that the Democrats were trying to "Horton-ize" Brown, not merely "Jesse-ize" him. If such attitudes persist, Jackson warned, he would consider withdrawal from the Democratic Party. Then he added, "Maybe they'll get the point before they blow another one." Maybe so. Ted Kennedy endorsed Brown on December 7.
The Jackson faction is not about to take over the party, at least not in the foreseeable future. But there is an argument to be made for sharing power, which is what Rainbow politicians have been seeking ever since the primary season. Contrary to conventional wisdom, progressives and liberals made a major comeback in the campaign year, even if they missed the brass ring. Elections are only partly about winning office. They also serve to develop and focus political consciousness by the interplay of forces "on the ground." The prominence of the constituencies and the agenda that Jackson and his coalition partners inserted in the campaign pushed the political center of gravity (if not the hyperbolic rhetoric) in their direction. Bush ended up much closer to the center and Dukakis, in his final days, was working the Jackson side of the street. The selection of George Mitchell to lead the Senate Democrats reflects that shift.
A change of fewer than 600,000 votes in a few "liberal" states would have put Dukakis over the top in November. The Democrats' growing strength in the biggest cities and in many of the biggest states suggests that the progressive coalition could provide the key to springing the Republican electoral lock in the future. And it's also clear that the strategy followed by Kirk, Dukakis and the Democratic Leadership Conference, which sought to have the Democrats become kinder, gentler Republicans and thus bring suburbanites, conservate whites and Southern racists into the Democratic column, will always fail.
Jackson's job for the next four years is to create the new Democratic majority he believes exists somewhere out there in America. Of crucial importance will be the relationship he fashions with the disparate partisans of the Rainbow constituencies. The "common ground" he aways mentions is devilishly difficult to find. Many left activists in the Rainbow Coalition want to build a permanent, independent organization with a hyperdemocratic structure -- a membership movement that is also a political party. They will demand--and they deserve--accountability from Jackson for his base on matters of principle and policy. Most black politicians who have benefited from the Jackson campaigns so far want a more modest model, and probably less democracy. They fear the marginalizing consequences of independence. Jackson will have to accommodate both tendencies, and others, to keep the coalition viable. At the same time, he must find ways to break through the racial and ideological barriers to the creation of a majority. He has miles to go, and a lot of tuna sandwiches, before that will happen.