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Democratic Demolition Derby

With Sharpton's attack on Dean, the Democratic presidential candidates enter a new phase, marked by nastier assaults on the frontrunner than on Bush.
 
 
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Rev. Al Sharpton succeeded in drawing first blood this week as Democratic presidential candidates entered a new phase marked by greater assaults on the frontrunner than on President Bush. In media and political commentary on the Faneuil Hall clash so far, Dean is described as provoking the bloodletting himself with his comments about "guys with Confederate flags."

But the unspoken story is also about the dynamics of black politics in the Democratic Party, and specifically about the conflict between Sharpton and the two Jesse Jacksons.

Up until this week, Sharpton has been a constructive, almost benign, presence in the primary debates, calling on his competing colleagues to focus on the Bush Administration. Even Rev. Jesse Jackson had noted the value of Sharpton (and Carol Mosely Braun) in keeping the Democratic candidates from backsliding on the race issue. When it came time for Sharpton to take off the gloves, however, it was Jackson who would receive the glancing blow with an unprepared Howard Dean as his proxy.

It began two Mondays ago after Sharpton's "Hardball" appearance at Harvard. The event went well, with the Reverend once again displaying an astonishing skill at counter-punching, mixing street smarts with humor, and being more than a match for Chris Matthews. Students I interviewed later unanimously found Sharpton to be the best debater among the candidates, though none of the white students were planning to vote for him.

It must gall Sharpton that so much of the white anti-war left rallies around a Dennis Kucinich, who is equally low in the polls, and not at all around an urban black leader who at least keeps the forgotten inner city represented in the debates. Nevertheless, Sharpton was in good spirits that night, until a New York Times reporter "got him" (as the reporter later boasted). Catching Sharpton as he was leaving the building in a late night rainstorm, the reporter wanted to know how he felt about news of Rep. Jesse Jackson's endorsement of Howard Dean.

A cloud passed over the Reverend's countenance. The news hurt, even though it was expected. It is well known that the Jackson clan is prepared to fight off any Sharpton challenge for leadership among African-Americans in politics. The lack of Jackson support -- Jesse Sr. is neutral -- is hardly helpful to Sharpton's prospects. (Jesse Jackson won 92 percent of the black primary vote in 1988, while Sharpton is currently at 10 percent in Jackson's home state of South Carolina, where black voters make up more than 50 percent of the primary electorate.) It also is no secret that Jesse Jackson, Jr. is expected to build on his father's legacy with a presidential run of his own someday.

So when Congressman Jackson not only endorsed Howard Dean but also announced plans to campaign with him in South Carolina, Rev. Sharpton felt his vital interests threatened. He promptly fired off a veiled denunciation of "any so-called African American leader" who would endorse Howard Dean with "his anti-black record."

Interestingly, Sharpton attacked Dean's positions on the NRA and the death penalty as evidence of the "anti-black record" but not Dean's remarks on white Southerners -- although Dean had made identical statements more than once at Democratic National Committee meetings that Sharpton had attended during the past year.

Sharpton's accusation hit the news on Oct. 29. The next day, Dean told the Des Moines Register, "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." The shorthand remark now became for Sharpton the available weapon for taking down Dean and at the same time caused an embarrassing problem for Jesse Jackson. In the process, Sharpton asserted himself as a candidate who can do damage despite his 1 percent standing in the national polls.

Where does this leave us? Only a short time ago, the Democratic candidates were providing a useful service by attacking Bush on Iraq, the economy and civil liberties. As the primaries near, the dynamics dictate that the Democrats begin demolishing each other, starting with Dean. First, he was harmed by hyped claims that he stood with Newt Gingrich on Medicare cuts, a cut meant to draw blood among seniors in Iowa and beyond. But the "Confederate flag" charge came as a body blow that will reverberate more deeply, even within the candidate himself.

To be sure, Dean contributed to his own troubles by calling Democratic members of Congress "cockroaches" and by a confrontational style overall. His centrist, even conservative, politics as Vermont governor are legitimate subjects for debate, too. But the nature of a competitive political process, with theatrical debates as the venue, almost guarantees rhetorical overkill. The goal of the other candidates, after all, is not to debate the front-runner but make him road kill for their own ambitions.

The immediate result is to force Howard Dean to apologize and deny that he is a racist, or anti-redneck, or a closet friend of Newt Gingrich, instead of intensifying his attack on Bush's debacle in Iraq. The main beneficiaries of Dean's tumble are Democrats who proudly defend their pro-war vote (Gephardt, Edwards, Lieberman) or offer confusing explanations (Kerry). Critics of Iraq like Kucinich (or Sharpton and Braun) are too low in the polls for leverage. The element of the Democratic Party that benefits are the centrists trying to forge a pro-war, pro-military, pro-toughness foreign policy with a liberal alternative to Bush on the domestic front. Their main fear is that the Democratic Party will become "anti-war," which makes Howard Dean their immediate enemy.

What is forgotten in this internecine war is that there is a vast Democratic and independent base of Howard Dean supporters whose active participation would seem essential if the Democrats are to have any chance in defeating Bush in 2004. The Dean support base, in turn, is the core of an even larger constituency. As noted by the ever-vigilant neoconservative Weekly Standard (Nov. 10), the Democratic base is anti-war. Among primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, less than 2 percent make "fighting terrorism" a priority. Asked if American strength depends on strong diplomacy or its military arsenals, 76 percent of Iowa voters and 77 percent of those in New Hampshire supported the diplomacy priority. Even in more conservative South Carolina, 56 percent said our security depends on good relations with our allies, while only 33 percent perceived military strength as the basis of America's security.

That's great news for the peace movement, but greeted with foreboding by some in the Democratic establishment. They fear a Dean candidacy not only on grounds that the Vermont governor can't win, but because they fear the Democratic Party becoming too associated with peace.

In this scenario, the favored candidates would be House Speaker Dick Gephardt, who committed himself to the Iraq war once again in his appearance at Harvard on Nov. 3.

"My job [as president] is to keep you safe," he told the students. "We have to fight the symptoms of terrorism. You better get to them first, it's called self-defense." Gephardt blamed Bush for not listening more to our allies at the UN, a course that might have justified delaying or avoiding the war altogether. Gephardt is a political man whose pro-war stance comes across as more a matter of positioning than principle. He hopes to neutralize Bush on national security while attracting Democrats to his progressive platform on reforming our trade laws to protect workers and the environment.

Gephardt's calculation may be correct. Democrats for peace may shrug off his hawkish rhetoric and be galvanized against Bush. But another scenario is possible. Gephardt will be neutralized as a critic of Bush on Iraq, while the Republicans hammer him on his proposal for a $9 minimum wage. The Dean constituency might lose heart, offsetting the effect of the labor movement's rallying behind Gephardt. Space may be opened for another Nader candidacy.

Behind Gephardt is John Kerry, who expresses more eloquent doubts than Gephardt so far about the Iraq policy he voted to authorize. Kerry also embodies a powerful legacy of a Vietnam combat veteran who turned against the war dramatically. He could do it again. On the other hand, his general orientation on free trade and domestic issues lacks a powerful organized constituency like labor with its money and campaign machinery.

Then there is Gen. Wesley Clark, an attractive candidate backed by some original Clintonistas -- if he can make the transition to civilian life. He too exploded at Howard Dean in Faneuil Hall, off-camera at least. He must overcome a bewildering position on whether he supported Bush's Iraq resolution, explain his recent conversion to the Democratic Party, and then solidify support among core Democratic constituencies with long-standing domestic agendas. The primaries could be harder than Bosnia.

John Edwards is like Gephardt without the backing at present. Labor leans to Gephardt, and the Clinton clique is elsewhere, leaving the trial lawyers who have money but lack a party presence or votes. Edwards' Faneuil Hall outburst against Dean, following after Sharpton, was a bid to win the South Carolina primary. Like any competitor who trails, Edwards apparently seems to sense it's now or never to stop Howard Dean.

That leaves Joe Lieberman, the most conservative of the candidates, whose strategy seems based on his more liberal opponents falling first, and Kucinich, Sharpton and Braun, each unable to find a voter base thus far. It is safe to say that they will not be nominated, leaving an important question of what role they will play in the rest of the campaign, especially in turning out their constituencies to vote.

Isaac Newton's theories of physics apply of course to politics: Sharpton's action against Dean will bring a reaction, one way or another, from the Dean camp, not to mention Jesse Jackson. The behind-the-scenes actions of party hawks will trigger a reaction from party progressives and the legions on Dean's lists. The fragile unity of the anti-Bush coalition as a whole will be damaged at least through the winter. Such is the "democratic process" in our TV Nation. Unfortunately, this is an election that will require every internal division to heal if a second term for George Bush is to be averted.

It is still possible for Dean to recover, but the assault on his frontrunner status has only begun. If Dean's not tough enough, some consultants already are saying, better to finish him off now rather than wait until he gets in the ring against Bush and Rove. What may be forgotten is that they are striking at a constituency as well as a candidate.

Tom Hayden, a frequent contributor to AlterNet, is a progressive activist, author and former California elected official. His most recent book is "Irish on the Inside."