Take The Sharpton Challenge

30 January 2003

By Stentor Danielson

In an already crowded field of Democratic presidential hopefuls, there is one candidate who nearly everyone agrees has no chance at winning the nomination and even less at capturing the White House: the Rev. Al Sharpton. Nevertheless, Sharpton is already creating headaches for Democrats plotting how to wrest the nation's highest office away from George W. Bush.

I don't dispute Sharpton's slim chance at victory. His longstanding reputation as a race-baiting demagogue has ruined his chances among the moderates who are key to success in the general election and alienated most Democrats. The crucial question, however, is whether Sharpton will be treated as an obstacle or a challenge.

Sharpton commands a small but powerful constituency that other candidates fear could be a spoiler in the race, grabbing enough support to prevent a clear winner from emerging from the primaries and giving Sharpton bargaining power at the Democratic Convention. To prevent this, Democrats have begun plotting ways to undercut the Reverend. Many hope that Carol Moseley-Braun, the only black woman ever to be elected to the Senate, will join the race and split Sharpton's base of support among blacks. Others look to strategist Donna Brazile, who has mulled encouraging black "favorite sons" to join local primaries and dilute Sharpton’s support.

The Moseley-Braun and Brazile approaches are taking the wrong track. Rather than looking at Sharpton as an obstacle to be overcome or a problem to be solved, Democrats should look at Sharpton's candidacy as a challenge to hone their skills for the general election. Sharpton represents two things that the Democrats desperately need: charisma and appeal to black voters.

Charisma has been notably lacking in the Democratic Party ever since Bill Clinton left the White House. President Bush's skill at cultivating an image of himself as a salt-of-the-earth heartland American who can connect with ordinary people has left the Democrats with a major liability. It's never a good sign when your party's figureheads are the weaselly Sen. Tom Daschle or the wooden Al Gore (who, frustratingly, proved to be a funny guy once he gave up on running for public office). Sharpton's public speaking skills should be regarded as a standard to match, not some sort of sophist's dirty trick.

Sharpton demonstrated his charisma at a recent forum for the six declared candidates sponsored by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL). The content of the speeches was secondary, as the NARAL forum was simply a chance for the candidates to demonstrate that they could toe the pro-choice line (as pro-choice voters are perhaps the Democrats' most important single-issue-voter constituency). What was important was style and delivery.

While all the candidates were successful in articulating their commitment to abortion rights, Sharpton outshone the frontrunners, getting the crowd genuinely excited. His only real competitor in generating enthusiasm was the race's second-longest shot, former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Dean's ability to match Sharpton's longpracticed charisma bodes well for his growing constituency among disaffected moderates and former supporters of Bill Bradley and John McCain.

While Dean may have the public speaking skills down, his list of issues -- he is moderate on gun control, has a much-touted record of fiscal responsibility as Governor, supports gradual reforms in health care, and famously fought for civil unions for homosexual couples -- does not include the civil rights issues that are Sharpton's bread and butter. Indeed, none of the candidates have the kind of credibility on racial concerns that prompted author Toni Morrison to call Clinton the nation's first black president.

Democrats have long taken for granted that blacks and other racial minorities will vote Democratic. With black votes assured, they can then turn to winning the hearts of the moderate whites who comprise the largest swing voter block. Sharpton's candidacy should challenge them to do better.

The temptation to take black votes for granted may be even stronger this year. The candidates may be counting on a few reminders of this winter's Trent Lott fiasco -- in which the then-Senate Majority Leader praised outgoing Senator Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential campaign, bringing to light the Republican Party's shameful history of pandering to racists -- to keep black voters in the Democratic column.

Democratic candidates run the risk of looking like hypocrites if, after jumping on the bipartisan bandwagon condemning Lott's remarks in order to bring down the Senator (now demoted to Rules and Administration Committee chairman), they fail to articulate a vision on race.

A vision on race does not mean repeating stock formulas on affirmative action and adding a few dark complexions to their campaign staffs. It means giving minority voters (and whites concerned about civil rights) a strong reason to vote for a candidate. It means taking the initiative to put forward positions on issues that minorities care about. It means building trust among black communities.

It's a tough challenge for a bunch of middle- and upper-class white guys to beat Sharpton on his own turf. But it will pay off for any candidate successful in doing it. It gives a candidate credibility in his appeal to all parts of American society, while bolstering the image of the Democrats as the party of inclusion.

Reaching out to minority voters is even more important for the race’s New Englanders -- Dean and Senators Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and John Kerry (Mass.). Conventional wisdom says that Southerners won't vote for anyone -- certainly not a Democrat -- who isn't one of their own, so the "New England liberal" image will be tough to shake. To capture votes in the south, Democrats will need support from the region's black and growing Hispanic population. No candidate can begin cultivating these votes too soon.

Even more intriguing is the possibility of enlisting Sharpton as an ally in the general election. Doubtless the Reverend will support whichever candidate wins the nomination -- even Lieberman, frequent accusations that Sharpton is anti-Semitic notwithstanding. But a candidate who can demonstrate credibility in addressing issues important to minorities is likely to earn more enthusiasm from Sharpton, as well as other civil rights leaders. These leaders can be crucial in energizing turnout among the poor and minorities, who disproportionately avoid the polls. Numerous Republican candidates have proven that better voter turnout can spell victory in close races.

Al Sharpton presents the Democratic presidential candidates with an opportunity to hone their skills at reaching out to minority voters and develop public speaking charisma. They would be wise to view Sharpton's run as a challenge, rather than squander it by treating it as an obstacle.

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