WASHINGTON -- There is probably less than meets the eye in Jesse Jackson's threat to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. But just the fact that he is talking about it is a symptom of a fundamental schism within the Democratic Party.
By the time of that next election, Democrats will have controlled the White House for eight years with a leader, President Clinton, whom the liberal activists have never come to trust or, in many cases, even accept. For them, the idea of supporting Mr. Clinton's obvious successor, Vice President Gore, may be too much to swallow.
Mr. Jackson says now that his decisions not to run for president in 1992 and 1996 were based on his feeling that the most important thing was ending the Reagan-Bush Republican era and then avoiding divisions that could have elected Bob Dole. But those practical considerations, he now argues, are no longer necessarily determinative.
"There will be a contest for the heart and soul of the party," he said the other day. "Are we soul-driven or poll-driven?"
The notion that Mr. Jackson might regain the stature he enjoyed when he ran in 1984 and 1988 probably doesn't hold water. For one thing, he lost some gloss as a political leader when he refused to run for mayor of the District of Columbia and save the city from Marion Barry. For another, there is a new generation of black Democratic leaders -- particularly mayors of major cities -- who didn't come out of the civil-rights movement and have no reason to think they owe any political debt to Mr. Jackson.
Nor should it be forgotten that his 1984 and 1988 campaigns never lifted him into serious contention for the Democratic presidential nomination, although the 1984 campaign in particular evoked remarkable enthusiasm in the African-American community and among a small coterie of white liberals.
But even if Jesse Jackson might not be a realistic contender for the nomination in 2000, his candidacy could be expected to enlist enough support among black voters to put pressure on other candidates to respond to demands for the kind of liberal programs from which President Clinton has been distancing himself.
None of the other Democratic possibilities has the kind of longstanding connections to black Americans that former Vice President Walter F. Mondale enjoyed when he defeated Mr. Jackson and Gary Hart in 1984. Although Mr. Gore has enjoyed strong backing from blacks in Tennessee, he strained those relationships in 1988 when he allowed himself to be embraced by former Mayor Ed Koch during the New York primary. Even if that is ancient history, Mr. Gore will be judged largely by his connections today to Bill Clinton.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri has a decent relationship with black leaders. But he is too young to have been in the trenches on civil-rights issues. The same can be said of Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
The one Democratic possibility who has made a particular point of speaking out forcefully on racial questions is former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. He also could expect some highly visible support from prominent blacks with whom he played professional basketball. But Mr. Bradley has yet to convince the political community that he has the stomach for an all-out presidential campaign.
None of this suggests that Mr. Gore or other white candidates cannot enlist strong support among African-American leaders and voters. President Clinton enjoys such support himself from minority voters who recognize that, whatever his failings, he is preferable to any of the Republicans now on the national stage.
But there are issues on which Mr. Clinton has raised serious doubts in the liberal community -- among them welfare reform, affirmative action and budget priorities. With or without Jesse Jackson, the liberals cannot be expected to allow the party to choose a nominee until these issues have been debated.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 6/02/97