The Rev. Al Sharpton's desperation is showing. His recent attacks on presidential candidate Barack Obama and his threat to withhold his support have exposed the trick behind Mr. Sharpton's magic act. His audience is leaving the tent, and Mr. Sharpton is scrambling for relevancy.
Mr. Sharpton has been challenging Mr. Obama's credentials in the black community and saying that the Democratic senator from Illinois is the darling of white leadership, according to Democratic sources. Mr. Sharpton told CBS News that he is withholding his endorsement until after his National Action Network summit next month. Meanwhile, he's playing hard to get between the Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton camps.
Now, it is fair to ask, what is Mr. Sharpton really up to? What is his real objection to Mr. Obama? That Mr. Obama has white supporters? That he has become the first serious black presidential candidate in U.S. history? That he lacks the civil rights bona fides that Mr. Sharpton claims for himself? Or is the real problem that Mr. Obama's biracial appeal has trumped Mr. Sharpton's race card?
For the past few decades, black votes have been promised and delivered by brokers such as Mr. Sharpton. This isn't shocking in itself. Everybody does it.
Sometimes, as in Mr. Sharpton's case, a vote broker will run for office himself. He knows he can't win, but he can raise enough money to run and to collect federal matching funds. Such a candidate can live for a while in a style to which he would like to become accustomed. Limos, bodyguards, room service. What happens when the money runs out and the campaign isn't doing so well? The constituency, so carefully cultivated, gets bartered. For a fair trade and a few perks: My votes are your votes.
Mr. Obama presents a particular problem for the Sharptons of the world because he doesn't need their help getting the black vote. Mr. Obama has mass appeal to all races. What happens to someone like Mr. Sharpton when his services are no longer needed?
Munchausen syndrome by proxy, perhaps. What we're witnessing now may be a variation on the psychiatric disorder usually associated with mothers who fabricate diseases or harm their children so that they can then tend to them and make them well. In Mr. Sharpton's case, we might call it "Mighty Mouse syndrome." His efforts to damage Mr. Obama suggest that Mr. Sharpton may be creating problems so that he can then solve them. Come to save the day, in other words.
Mr. Sharpton's Barack-bashing is more than politics as usual. It is also a historic watershed, the death throes of an old guard. Regardless of whether Mr. Obama wins, his candidacy has exposed Mr. Sharpton and other race peddlers for what they are - and threatened their relevancy.
The trick for Mr. Sharpton now is how long to withhold his support. If he signs on with Mr. Obama too soon, his currency is less valuable.
While Mr. Sharpton may believe that he is much desired by both front-runners, whisperers within some Democratic quarters wouldn't be sorry to see Mr. Sharpton attach himself to Mrs. Clinton. They're banking on another syndrome: the Ned Lamont Syndrome. When Mr. Lamont defeated Joseph I. Lieberman in Connecticut for the Democratic Senate nomination last year, who joined him on the stage? Mr. Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who also is being coy toward Mr. Obama. Who lost in the general election? Mr. Lamont.
Likewise, Mrs. Clinton might not benefit from being frozen in the frame with Mr. Sharpton. Which is to say, Mr. Sharpton's magic has become an empty top hat.
Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.