Jesse Jackson, who still hasn't decided whether to mount a presidential campaign in next year's Democratic primaries, may be toying with the idea of running as an independent in the general election. In some ways, of course, all this should-he-or-shouldn't-he, will- he-or-won't-he speculation is beside the point. Jesse Jackson is not going to win the presidency, or a major party nomination. He may not even run. But unless I miss my guess, he is going to make a difference on the American scene: in the way issues get raised and resolved, in the way the civil rights leadership handles its role, in the way the political parties do their business.
And it will happen because Jackson--as much as his motives are distrusted by his fellow leaders, as much as he is suspected by them of having his own self-promotion principally at heart--embodies a peculiar, and peculiarly effective, set of talents. He has, for openers, the charisma that enables him to move crowds. He has a keen eye for what will sell politically in a given time and place. And he has the ability both to engage in sophisticated analysis of issues and to translate his analyses into terms that make sense to sophisticates and nonsophisticates alike.
Take the ancient political plaint of blacks: that they are ignored by the Republicans and taken for granted by the Democrats. Until now it has been an impotent truism. Jackson may manage to give it political potency. "What we have," he said in a recent interview from Mississippi, where he was working to register black voters, "is the combination of the Democratic Party breaking the law and the Republican administration not enforcing the law. Our leadership focuses on the Republicans, but the Democrats are failing two major tests as well: they are not making room for blacks (as candidates, as slate-makers and, in some cases, as voters) who want to be Democrats, and they are failing the test of character, expecting blacks to vote for white candidates, but not the other way around."
It is, by his lights, a major mistake. "If blacks are disfranchised, then progressive whites can't win either. What the party does about voting rights in places like Mississippi (where he helped to register some 40,000 new voters this summer, and where he almost singlehandedly persuaded the Justice Department to dispatch 322 federal observers for the recent primaries) is a test both for Democrats and for democracy."
Does his criticism of the Democratic Party suggest that he might run as an independent? "The jury is still out on the questions we have raised. The party leadership promised they would raise substantial money for black registration; they haven't done it yet. They said they would form a group to look at voter enforcement, that they would file suits, hold hearings, convene state chairmen; it hasn't happened yet."
As to the charge that a Jackson candidacy would improve President Reagan's reelection chances, he agrees that Reagan represents a threat to black progress. "But removing Reagan is just one side of the equation. The other side is for us to achieve political parity. In the process of achieving parity, you can defeat Reagan. But our leadership is mistaken in supposing that the absence of Reagan is the presence of parity. We are, by my count, 46,000 short of our share of elected officials. We should have at least 25,000 blacks running for office at some level. The centrifugal force of that would change our options beyond the ability of even a computer to calculate it. If I run, it would be to help pull that wagonload of fighters. Pulling an empty wagon is inadequate."