The Democratic Party is broken, its national leadership frayed, and its position on key policies confused. So says lifelong Democrat and prominent civil rights activist, Rev. Al Sharpton, whom I had an opportunity to chat with at a recent fund-raiser for his 2004 presidential run. During the course of our conversation, Sharpton touched on several hot political issues, but what was most striking were the disparaging remarks he had for his own brethren in the Democratic Party.
Notably, Sharpton accused the Democrats national leadership of ignoring the needs of black voters. "We (the black voting populace) gave 90 percent of our vote to the Democratic Party, but what did we get in return?" wondered Sharpton. "This insipid relationship of wanting to deal with us by night, but not wanting to be seen with us by day is over. Don't court us, if you're not going to marry us."
Ideally, Sharpton would like to see the Democratic Party take much firmer stands on issues of voting rights, racial profiling, Social Security, education and Medicare reform. As he put it, "This election is about real life. It is about whether grandmom can buy her medicine or pay her rent. It is about whether public schools can educate children. It is about whether children grow up running from cops and robbers in certain neighborhoods."
Sadly, Sharpton is skeptical that the Democratic Party will offer any bold reforms. He says it is constrained by the leadership's gradual movement toward the soft center. In an attempt to appeal to everyone, he says, Democrats have come to "stand for nothing."
"When I was 18," Sharpton recalls, "you could define what a Democrat meant. In three weeks, I'll be 48 and I can no longer tell my daughters what it means to be a Democrat."
Sharpton has sugary dreams about restoring the Democratic Party to "its original tenets." Presumably, that means expanding government, pursuing regulation and throwing more money at social welfare problems. He seems to think that all three are good ideas and seems poised to make his case during a bid for the 2004 Democratic nomination.
In 1994, Sharpton ran for the U.S. Senate in New York and for mayor of New York City in 1997. Both times he had difficulty generating mainstream support and the criticism lodged against him is that he hasn't shown himself capable of branching out beyond his - sometimes divisive - civil rights coalition.
When asked whether he can move beyond the race issue, his response is terse. "That's like saying Gore only dealt with the environment. Every candidate comes to the table with a base issue. But you go beyond your issue. What is Daschle's issue? What is Kerry's issue? They are undefined. Ralph Nader got 3 million votes. He ran as a consumer advocate. No one said that wasn't legit. I come from the table with core beliefs like everyone else."
Whether Sharpton can move the divisive rhetoric of his past and emerge as a puffy-haired peacekeeper remains very much in question.
What is clear, however, is that the Democratic Party is undergoing an identity crisis that has become so pervasive that it is alienating even some of its most loyal leaders.