For months we've been saying that Al Sharpton is little more than an East Coast populist that stands little chance of becoming a legitimate political candidate (i.e., a black candidate with white support).
That changed when, during the Iowa debate, Sharpton cornered Gov. Howard Dean into admitting that he had never named a minority member to his cabinet or to his re-election team. With that, Sharpton served notice that his presence should not be taken for granted.
Since then, the revelation about Dean's hiring practices has taken a back seat to his insane howling jag after the Iowa caucus. And, lacking a public stage to ham it up on, Sharpton too has receded from public view, raising serious questions about whether the last remaining black candidate is capable of thriving outside of the public debates. Noting Sharpton's teased hair and penchant for screaming racial hyperbole into a Radio Shack power horn, most critics remain skeptical of his ability to generate crossover appeal. Then there are all the scandals - an FBI investigation, the Tawana Brawley fiasco, his 1993 conviction for tax evasion and his incitement of mob violence against a Jewish shopkeeper that resulted in the storekeeper's death.
Sharpton still carries these scandals in tow and they don't play in the suburbs, where white voters can empathize with sexual indiscretions of the Jesse Jackson/Bill Clinton variety, but not with someone who stirs racial tensions for a living. In the cool suburban enclaves, Jackson remains the black leader of choice, a moderate who works for change from within the Democratic Party. Sharpton, by contrast, remains the outsider who pumps his fist at the white power structure and distracts us from real solutions.
This impression couldn't be more wrong. Jackson has gotten the Democratic Party's blessing because of his willingness to be bought off. Just back up a truck of money and dump it in Jackson's driveway, and he'll sing whatever tune the Democrats want. Opposition to school vouchers, opposition to Bush's faith-based outreach, fake charges of voter fraud in Florida, just hand Jackson a few stacks of cash and he'll offer an indictment straight from the pulpit. The party returns the favor with its support - white support. This is the model that enabled Jackson's success in 1984 and 1988.
It's the same model that Carol Moseley Braun currently employs. Having re-established some credibility and name recognition with her presidential bid, Braun is now handing her single-digit black support over to Howard Dean. In return, Dean is paying off her campaign debt and the party is welcoming her back into the fold.
Sharpton isn't so willing to play lapdog. In the past, he's turned on the party and endorsed Republican candidates. Get it? Sharpton won't sell out. Given the appalling lack of black senators and congressmen, that makes Sharpton black America's most viable mouthpiece.
Sadly, our civil rights leaders refuse to back him because they've been conditioned by Jackson's success to believe that a black candidate needs the party's blessing. They refuse to endorse a more ideologically pure leader like Sharpton because he is not so eager to placate the party (and also because they nurture their own dreams of currying favor with the party and supplanting Sharpton as the voice of black America).
If instead our civil rights leaders united behind Sharpton, they wouldn't have to prostrate themselves before the Democratic Party. They would have enough of a unified following to force change - or at least a genuine give-and-take - on issues of real importance. Then Sharpton would be something rather extraordinary - a black leader who didn't have to sell himself out for white support.