Mr. Jackson feels that the country may well be jumping ship on the cause of racial justice. It has happened before in American history, he says, and following post-Civil War Reconstruction, it brought about a "separate but equal apartheid." If that again becomes the direction, Mr. Jackson indicates that he will run for president, this time probably as a third-party candidate.
He says the Republicans have put "affirmative action" on the table. He regards that as opportunistic "scapegoating," and a Republican "red herring."
But Mr. Jackson has particular scorn for the Democratic Leadership Council, the putative center-right of the Democratic Party. In what may be a harbinger of sharp intra-party combat, he says that on the issue of affirmative action "Lieberman and Helms are indistinguishable." (That is, the new Democratic Leadership Council chairman, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and the arch-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.) Mr. Jackson, president of the National Rainbow Coalition, reports that members of the "Connecticut Rainbow" are holding rallies against Senator Lieberman in his home state.
(Taking questions at a press conference, Mr. Lieberman had said he favored "outreach," but "group preferences are wrong, it's just not consistent with American values." Contacted about Mr. Jackson's Helms-Lieberman comparison, Senator Lieberman said: "If we can't find a way to discuss these problems without polarization, this country really will be in trouble. I am as committed as ever to civil rights and equal opportunity. I support some forms of affirmative action. But some of it has gone too far." In a recent op-ed piece DLC President Al From wrote: "The country would be better off if the debate on affirmative action were not framed by the two Jesses.")
Mr. Jackson met recently with President Clinton, urging support for affirmative action. He told the president there should be a White House conference on jobs and a major new program to rebuild urban infrastructure. Mr. Jackson says this would cut crime and welfare. He says that Mr. Clinton's "response will determine our options."
This puts the president in a no-win situation. If he follows the Jackson track, he will be seen as a liberal Old Democrat, still favoring racial preference and big government spending. Such a perception would bolster the view that Democrats have become the party of minorities and would further erode Mr. Clinton's center constituency. Without such voters it is hard to see how he could win re-election in 1996.
If the president rejects the Jackson approach, then Mr. Jackson may run a third-party effort. That would drain at least some black Democratic votes in important states. Even a small loss of such votes could close off most plausible paths to re-election.
A Jackson candidacy might not be dangerous to Democrats if it took the form of a challenge in the primaries. Mr. Clinton could then campaign in a posture of extremists-to-the-left-of-me (Mr. Jackson) and extremists-to-the-right-of-me (Newt Gingrich, Republicans). But Mr. Jackson doesn't plan to cooperate. If he runs in either the primaries or the general election, he says it will not be on a left-right or black-white axis. He sees himself as a leader of minorities, women, unionists and people who have been unemployed or under-employed because of NAFTA or GATT.
In any event, Mr. Jackson says the third-party route is much more appealing. He is not a happy camper as a Democrat. He notes, "It's been 12 years since I first ran for president and I've only been invited to two Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners."
I asked him how he could handle the sure-to-come comment (if President Clinton loses) that "Jesse Jackson brought down the party." He says that doesn't bother him. He notes that he campaigned in more states than Mr. Clinton did in 1994, and that he's the one who has brought in 6 million new voters to the Democratic ranks.
The threat of an independent candidacy gives Mr. Jackson a strong weapon to brandish in the Democratic negotiations still to come. But if he ends up jumping ship, it could shatter the Democratic Party as we know it.
Ben Wattenberg is the host of the weekly public-television program, "Think Tank."