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Aug 15

The 2004 Nightmare In A Nutshell

Unity or no national unity, this question is on the brains of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Sens. John F. Kerry, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman, and all the others who were potential candidates before September 11. But it’s only on the tongue of Sharpton.

On Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle: “His position in Washington could be used against him.”

On Edwards, who made his fortune as a trial lawyer in the area of personal injury: “I would want Edwards to run, because he [was] a lawyer who represented victims and made a lot of money. I fought for victims all my life and didn’t get paid.”

On Kerry: “I know who he is, but I don’t know how much of a profile he has in the black community.”

On Gephardt: “I’ve met him; I like him; I think he’s a decent guy. But he’ll be leading the charge to take over the House. How is he going to then turn around and say that he should be President?”

nmianAnd, of course, on himself: “It was Harold Washington’s race in ’83 that energized Jesse Jackson’s presidential race of ’84. In many ways, Freddy could be the same person for me.” “Freddy” is Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, whose candidacy to succeed Rudy Giuliani as mayor of New York was taken straight out of the racial-politics playbook (Sharpton endorsement included). And Ferrer finds himself in startlingly good shape to take the Democratic nomination on October 11. Sharpton will be in Iowa and New Hampshire in the next three months, and an exploratory committee including Cornel West and Charles Ogletree, and a bunch of other people he won’t disclose, will convene at the end of October.

On Gore: “Al Gore had a lock on the black vote. Against who? Against George Bush?” Try to suggest to Sharpton that Gore will enjoy the overwhelming support of African-Americans who will still be smarting over the memory of Florida, and he gets really mean: “The same argument was made for Walter Mondale!”

Not surprisingly, the conventional wisdom is more conventional. Most Democrats feel that Gore, however grizzled and drifting, will be no pushover. This was true even before recent events put a premium on foreign policy experience. (Others contend that if ’04 is remotely about national security, any Democrat might as well put the election in a fruit basket and send it, with a card, to the Republicans. But that is another issue.) It is widely, if begrudgingly, accepted that Gore still has an enviable level of name recognition; that even his diminished fundraising network is mighty next to that of most of his competitors; and that he does not suffer the contempt among Democratic voters nationwide that he does among Democratic operatives in Washington.

It is Edwards whose presidential star is most readily cited as having fallen, on the apposite grounds that his standing as a first-term Senator denies him the allegedly requisite gravitas. Ironically, then, it is Daschle who is more seriously hamstrung because of the gravitas that he has just acquired. Even in placid times, as Bob Dole painfully learned, the dictates of running the Senate practically contradict those of running for President. In times like these, when the task of disciplining a Caucus into bipartisanship becomes a point of real import, the requisite balance seems functionally unimaginable. Edwards’s folk, on the other hand, are doing all they can to keep their guy in the mix; they tell the story of 1992 as a parable of the foreign-policy-neophyte-Southerner who beat the Bush. (Clinton is also said to be blissfully high on the thought of an Edwards candidacy, and the two speak frequently.) Kerry has laid off half his fundraising people. U.S. News & World Report’s Washington Whispers has it that he will use the break from politics to bone up on his foreign policy, which he will no doubt study en route to New Hampshire on October 13.

As for the conventional wisdom on Sharpton, it divides into three camps: those who are dismissive of the idea that he can be the next Jesse Jackson; those who are dismissive of anyone who would want to be the next Jesse Jackson; and those who are not dismissive at all–or at least not dismissive of his ability to influence the race–because they come from New York.

Only God knows how his candidacy will play, but I would be willing to bet: Reporters who are now unfamiliar with or contemptuous of Sharpton will be palpably shocked by his intelligence, guiltily psyched by his quotability, and inevitably impressed with his ability to bring large crowds to their feet. Expected to get no votes, he will get some votes–and in some places, quite a few votes. Astonishment will take hold. Cameras will follow him everywhere at the convention. There will be much discussion of how the party will neutralize or use him, followed by a retrospective discussion of what, if anything, it all meant.

Whether or not that slice of New York politics is paid any heed nationally, this one definitely should be: As the aftermath of September 11 carried him to superlative heights of leadership, it seemed as if Giuliani was about to be swept on a tide of adulation right past the city charter and into a third term. Within days, that possibility had devolved into the question of whether Giuliani ought to be allowed to stay on for a few extra months. And within days of that, it is Ferret, who opposed the notion of an extension, who has gained momentum, and Public Advocate Mark Green, who supported Giuliani’s staying, who has lost momentum.

What’s striking about this is not that the four-more-years movement never took off–even amid the most overwhelming public support, the idea would have been much more easily said than done. What is striking is that there was not, in fact, overwhelming public support; that, while his (considerable) supporters and the media were saying that this city was unimaginable without this mayor, there were clearly legions of New Yorkers who did not want him in office for an extra day. This emphasizes the point, both so easy to see and so easy to lose sight of, that different people see things differently. War is one of those things.

“You may have a huge backlash on military engagement, which falls directly on people of color,” Sharpton says of the next three years, citing the fact that African-Americans serve disproportionately in the military; in the types of civilian jobs that tend to be hardest hit by service-sector layoffs; and in the ranks of citizens most disturbed by the notions of broadened law enforcement power, particularly racial profiling.

It is impossible to know to what degree any or all of these considerations will constitute a legitimate critique of the Bush presidency in general, and of the prosecution of this war in particular. But make no mistake, every Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 will try to find a way to communicate all these things. They just won’t ever say them.

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