Midway through last Thursday's Democratic debate in New Hampshire, co-moderator Peter Jennings decided to have a little fun with Al Sharpton. The reverend wants to be treated as a serious presidential candidate—even though he has never held elective office, has visited New Hampshire only four times (twice for debates), and has offered no real policy proposals. So Jennings decided to play along. If “you have the opportunity to nominate someone to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, what kind of person would you consider for the job?” the ABC News anchor asked. “You can name someone in particular, if you have someone in mind. And maybe just take a minute or so to give us a little bit about your views on monetary policy.”
If anything, Jennings's curveball succeeded too well. Sharpton, confusing monetary policy and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), responded with a broadside against "the IMF and the policies that are emanating there.” To make matters worse, Fox's Brit Hume followed up a few minutes later with a question about how President Sharpton would handle Iran. The reverend's answer this time was only slightly more coherent. “I would support the U.N. to try to bring about some kind of stabilized order there,” explained Sharpton, although the problem in theocratic Iran is too much order, not too little. Once again, the question's subtext was obvious and even a little ugly: What does Tawana Brawley's ex-spokesman know about the nonracial aspects of U.S. government? Answer: Virtually nothing.
But the answer wasn't always so obvious. A year ago, Sharpton's candidacy seemed more dangerous but less ridiculous. A February 2003 CNN poll put him at 7 percent nationally, more than twice the level of Howard Dean. The reverend got a respectful hearing on NBC's “Meet the Press” in January and a raucous reception at the NARAL Pro-Choice America meeting in February. He modeled his campaign after Jesse Jackson's in 1988—a campaign that was anything but a joke. Jackson won 37 percent of the primary vote in New York, 31 percent in Maine, 27 percent in Vermont, 20 percent in Minnesota, 11 percent in Iowa, and 8 percent in New Hampshire, en route amassing more than one-quarter of all Democratic delegates. His anti-corporate message captivated the very college- educated, left-leaning, white activists who this year flocked to Dean. Indeed, by one estimate, Jackson tied Michael Dukakis among Democrats aged 18-24. No one would have questioned his right to participate in a New Hampshire debate. And, if asked about monetary policy or Iran, Jackson probably would have had something to say.
From the beginning, Sharpton set out to define this year's Democratic race as Jackson defined the one in 1988: As a battle between liberal activists and Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) moderates. “There's going to have to be a showdown between the Democratic Leadership Council and the progressive forces,” he told The Nation. “I see us as the children of the Rainbow [Coalition] coming back to bring the party back to where it was,” he told The American Prospect.
As it turned out, for much of 2003 the nomination fight did indeed look like an ideological battle. It's just that Dean utterly eclipsed Sharpton as the spokesman for the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Partly, that's because this year, as opposed to 1988, the liberal-centrist divide was largely about foreign policy, where Sharpton has the least credibility. But, more important, Sharpton hasn't emerged as the leader of an ideological wing of the Democratic Party because, unlike Jackson, he isn't that ideological. By 1988, Jackson had become an all-purpose left-wing gadfly, the '80s equivalent of Ralph Nader or Michael Moore. He marched with striking coal-miners, picketed outsourcing corporations, and renegotiated loans for struggling family farmers. And he explicitly disavowed racialism, noting that the poorest Americans were “young, white, and female.”
Sharpton, by contrast, has spent his career placing racial (and personal) interests above ideological ones. In New York, his economic agenda was confined to denouncing white (and Asian-) owned businesses that operated in black neighborhoods. And he specialized in torpedoing white liberals. In 1986, Sharpton supported Republican Senator Al D'Amato for reelection over Democrat Mark Green. In 1992, he refused to endorse Democratic State Attorney General Robert Abrams, helping give D'Amato another six years. In 1994, he refused to support Patrick Moynihan, calling him racially insensitive. And, in 2001, he again refused to endorse Green, helping hand New York's mayoralty to Michael Bloomberg.
So it's hardly surprising that, this year, Sharpton has trained his fire not on DLC-esque candidates like Joe Lieberman or John Edwards but on liberal standard-bearer Howard Dean. On October 28, Sharpton said Dean's support for the death penalty and opposition to gun control “amounts to an anti-black agenda.” Later, at Iowa's “black-brown” debate, he flayed Dean for presiding over an all-white Cabinet in Vermont. Meanwhile, Sharpton has yet to offer a plan to provide health care for the uninsured.
Ultimately, then, Sharpton has failed to duplicate Jackson's 1988 accomplishment, because, for all their superficial similarities, the two men have different missions. Jackson amassed power by using his African American base as the foundation of a broader left-liberal coalition. Sharpton amasses power by threatening to withhold that base from a larger left-liberal coalition. This week, The New York Times reported that Republican operative, and Bush supporter, Roger Stone has emerged as one of Sharpton's key advisers. It is entirely possible that, later this year, the reverend will commence a very public, very anguished dialogue with himself about whether to endorse the Democratic nominee. Democrats don't seem overly worried about that right now, perhaps because they remember 1988, when Jackson endorsed Dukakis and even campaigned for him across the country. But the analogy, while comforting, is false. Jackson might not have always believed the right things, but at least he believed in things other than himself.
This article originally ran in the February 9, 2004, issue of the magazine.