WASHINGTON -- Ever since Democrats gathered in Washington Jan. 21 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of legalized abortion, the party's deep thinkers have been brooding. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who preached before he could read or write, made five white opponents for the presidential nomination look prosaic. In the three weeks since, more prominent Democrats have come to regard the 48-year-old Pentecostal minister from Harlem as their worst nightmare.
How could the world's oldest political party be threatened by a professional troublemaker accused of not paying his taxes and found guilty of defaming innocent public officials? The answer is found in two independent polls. Zogby shows Sharpton with 20 percent of the African-American vote for president, and InsiderAdvantage gives him 28 percent. These startling numbers come in advance of Sharpton's campaign to extend his presence beyond the boundaries of New York City.
This is a problem waiting to happen for the Democratic Party thanks to reliance on black voters, particularly in the South. Democrats dodged the bullet when the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for president (and succeeded in ruining young Al Gore's 1988 bid aimed at sweeping Southern primaries). This reliance is much stronger 15 years later, and a black candidate promises to distort an already confused contest for the nomination.
An expected African-American vote of 40 percent gives Sharpton an edge in South Carolina's crucial early primary. While he will not be nominated, he poses an omnipresent embarrassment at multi-candidate debates and will demand a major speaking slot at the national convention in Boston. So, the party is stuck with Sharpton.
Until the Roe v. Wade celebration, many prominent Democrats were in denial about Sharpton. They dismissed a discredited rabble-rouser who never has been elected to public office. A warning came from New York City, where Sharpton has killed Democratic chances in the last two mayoral elections, by his own candidacy in 1997 and by refusing to endorse the party's nominee in 2001. Democratic political operative Howard Wolfson, a veteran of the New York wars, said of the other presidential candidates: "These guys have no idea what they're in for."
The NARAL Pro-Choice America dinner Jan. 21 was an eye opener. All six declared presidential hopefuls delivered dutiful but uninspired affirmations (with Sen. Joe Lieberman, treasuring his social conservative credentials, enshrining abortion as an American tradition). Sharpton stirred the audience by declaring: "It is time for the Christian Right to meet the right Christian."
Who will cut down Sharpton and expose his flaws? Not major Democratic players, and certainly not the other presidential candidates. Former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, defeated for re-election from Illinois in 1998 after a scandal-scarred single term, was suggested as a second black presidential candidate. It was too transparent a ploy to dilute Sharpton's vote to succeed.
While big-gun Democrats stay silent, the party's advocates mount a barrage against Sharpton. The February cover story of the left-wing American Prospect magazine, "Al 'The Rev.' Sharpton vs. The Democrats," excoriates his public record. The same accusations were made to Sharpton's face on CNN's "Crossfire" by former Clinton presidential aide Paul Begala. Normally, the American Prospect and Begala reserve their attacks for George W. Bush and members of his administration.
However, Sharpton is tougher than usual Republican targets. Whenever Begala interrupted him, Sharpton interrupted back. When Begala demanded a "yes or no" answer to whether he would support any Democratic presidential nominee, Sharpton responded: "I'm going to answer it my way. You know, you all have to get used to (it). You all can't give orders no more, Paul. There are grown up folk in this party now, and we're going to answer the questions the way we believe."
Sharpton's rivals for the Democratic nomination dread such a riposte. Nor do they relish being the brunt of the Reverend's counterattacks. When asked by a reporter about his role in the Tawana Brawley non-rape case, he replied: "The next time anybody wants to know about Tawana Brawley, I'm going to ask them: 'Do you ask Teddy Kennedy about Chappaquiddick? Do you ask Hillary Clinton about her husband?'" If the Democrats don't dare risk abuse by challenging an African-American candidate, the alternative is enduring the Sharpton nightmare.