Jackson could prove spoiler for Clinton


Washington -- YOU COULD argue that Bill Clinton won the presidency by the adroit way he cold-shouldered the Rev. Jesse Jackson in an obvious appeal to the white "Bubba" vote.

Don't think Mr. Jackson has forgotten.

One memorable scene from the '92 campaign came when Bill Clinton attacked Sister Souljah at the Rainbow Coalition, a tongue-lashing delivered as Mr. Jackson glowered at being "dissed" on his own turf.

Don't think Mr. Jackson has forgiven.

Soon it could be payback time.

The most unnerving menace to Mr. Clinton's re-election, his own strategists admit, is not Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Newt Gingrich or any of the Republicans swarming the summer barbecue circuit.

Confidently, Mr. Clinton's cadre thinks the prez -- unless Whitewater or the economy blows up -- can handle the GOP wannabes.

No, the Clinton gang's nightmare is Jesse Jackson -- especially a revved-up Jesse plotting revenge for Mr. Clinton's disrespect.

Maybe Mr. Jackson has been to the well too often. Maybe his pitch is threadbare. But he's still the social and racial conscience of the Democratic Party. He retains the power to siphon labor, liberal and African-American voters from Mr. Clinton.

For a president with a 43 percent base, that would be disaster.

When he talks to journalists, Mr. Jackson lays out three 1996 options: (1) sit it out, (2) run in the primaries as he did in '84 and '88, (3) campaign as an independent.

Fine, let Jesse trot through the primaries, Clinton advisers say smugly. That way Bill can finesse Jesse again, shine his credentials as a centrist politician for suburban whites.

But Mr. Jackson's been there, done that. He's weary of the futile primary route. After all, he got more votes than Al Gore or Dick Gephardt in 1988 yet won nothing but 20 minutes of TV time for a convention spiel.

Instead, Mr. Jackson is making threatening noises of taking Option No. 3, an independent run in fall '96 -- a Democratic calamity that would almost guarantee Mr. Clinton's defeat.

"We need another line on the ballot," Mr. Jackson tells friendly audiences as he recites Mr. Clinton's failures. "We delivered and they ignored us. We will not be taken for granted and exploited any longer."

Even if Mr. Jackson's third-party venture didn't gin up the big vote of George Wallace in '68 or Ross Perot in '92, he would vacuum away enough black support to make Mr. Clinton's re-election nearly impossible.

The Jackson Problem throws Mr. Clinton's gurus into panic. They have no idea how to handle the Jackson insurgency. So they're campaigning early, hoping the Preacherman is thwarted by lack of money and the maddening rules of 50 states' ballots.

You'll not detect remorse from Mr. Jackson if his rebellion sends the Clintons home to Little Rock, Ark.

"I didn't run two years ago in 1994 and Republicans won the House and Senate," he said blithely on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley." "I refuse to accept that burden."

Mr. Jackson, whose chill with Mr. Clinton goes deep, indicts the prez for turning his back on U.S. cities. "The only urban policy we have is to build more jails," he says. He scorns Mr. Clinton's cave-in on the budget as "Republican Lite."

But not merely hostility against Bill Clinton drives Jesse Jackson. He's fueled by wariness that the American mood, exemplified by a string of harsh Supreme Court rulings, is to roll back the civil rights laws of the 1960s.

He's not paranoid. Other black political leaders also fear the racially conservative climate of the court, Congress and the White House. In a burst of hyperbole, some call it a "legal trip back to slavery."

"Twenty, 30 years ago, we looked at the Supreme Court as a sympathetic referee," says Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a hero of the '60s movement. "This court is not a friend of civil rights."

Mr. Jackson is more scathing toward the court's recent knockout punch that invalidated a Georgia congressional district designed to empower black voters.

"This is Second Reconstruction," said Mr. Jackson, alluding to the post-Civil War movement that wiped out blacks' gains. "Half of the black or brown officials in the country will disappear by 1996. So it's beginning to look more like 1896."

You can bet resentment will mount as the U.S. House begins to chip away at affirmative action rules that gave minorities and women a better shot at jobs. Mr. Clinton's timid acquiescence will only raise the anger of Mr. Jackson's flock.

Black officials who think they're fighting for their lives are only incensed by patronizing Republicans such as Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who said, "They're not in power any more and don't like it. They're defensive and in denial."

The so-called "Reagan Court," a conservative Congress and a middle-of-the-road Clinton may build enough anxiety among African-Americans to push Mr. Jackson again into a national race.

The dirty little secret is that some southern Democrats privately welcome a Jackson run. Their theory: "We'd lose the White House but the energized black vote would save our jobs."

What if another maverick -- Ross Perot, Colin Powell or Pat Buchanan -- should join Mr. Jackson in a multi-party melee for the presidency? Nobody can handicap the chaos.

No consolation for Bill Clinton, who looks over his shoulder and sees Jesse Jackson's angry shadow. The Preacherman feels dissed, and he's not alone.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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