Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2003 / 17 Adar I 5763
Braun vs. Sharpton: A Dem dilemma
Never say "never," especially in politics.
When Carol Moseley-Braun lost her Senate seat in 1998, she declared that she would never run again for public office.
"Read my lips," the Chicago Democrat told a Chicago Tribune reporter. "Not. Never. Nein. Nyet."
But, ah, things change. In a meeting at the Tribune's Washington bureau last week, Moseley-Braun revealed her plans to file papers Tuesday (Feb. 18) to launch a presidential exploratory campaign.
Why the switch? The country needs her, she says, echoing what every candidate for president says. But Democratic Party insiders and activists have been urging Moseley-Braun to run not so much to win or even to provide an important symbol of black and female empowerment. Been there, done that, with Shirley Chisholm in 1972.
No, party insiders hope Moseley-Braun as their Great Black Hope will stop the rise of the Rev. Al Sharpton as a major player in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes.
As such, her candidacy, like that of Sharpton, is a symptom of deeper problems in today's Democratic Party. The current lineup of Democratic presidential candidates has a big charisma gap when it comes to energizing the party's base of black and liberal-progressive wings.
As my column-writing colleague Molly Ivins might say, they "don't have any Elvis in'em." No James Brown, either, I might add.
Since nature abhors a vacuum, enter the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Brooklyn bomb-thrower, the Hellcat from Harlem, who also happened to spend his teen years as James Brown's road manager.
Of course, when it comes to political baggage, like his infamous and still unapologetic involvement in the bogus Tawana Brawley rape case, Sharpton makes party moderates long for the days of Jesse Jackson's controversial candidacies in 1984 and 1988.
But as a debater and scene-stealer, Sharpton will not let himself be ignored. He showed that in his spirited campaigns for New York senator and New York City mayor. Sharpton lost but he became a player. No Democrat realistically seeks citywide or statewide office without paying a courtesy call at Sharpton's Harlem headquarters.
Nationally, Sharpton has stolen the stage at recent antiwar rallies in Washington and in the show-up by major presidential hopefuls at the 30th Anniversary of legalized abortion in Washington on Jan. 21. His spirited upstaging of his white opponents at the NARAL: Pro-Choice America dinner confirmed party leaders' worst fears.
The big showdown between Sharpton and the party's old-guard is expected to come in South Carolina, an early primary state where blacks are expected to account for 40 percent or more of the Democratic turnout. Sharpton's been there just about every week recently. Moseley-Braun says she has some "friends" and volunteers laying groundwork there for her possible bid.
Moseley-Braun pulled off an upset victory for the seat of popular incumbent Democratic Sen. Alan Dixon of Illinois in 1992, in part by rallying white swing voters, particularly women angered by Dixon's vote for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's confirmation.
But the political popularity that bridged liberals and corporate conservatives in Illinois failed to help Moseley-Braun keep her Senate seat against a withering attack-ad campaign by Republican Peter Fitzgerald that focused on charges of campaign finance violations.
Now Moseley-Braun holds up the findings of a deeply-probing investigation by her rival, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), of all people, after President Clinton named her to be his ambassador to New Zealand. The probe accounted for every penny but $311, Moseley-Braun proudly points out as she offers the report to anyone who cares to read it.
Nevertheless, Moseley-Braun's winnability is, to put it mildly, challenged. Remember the old joke about what the one man said to the other as they were outrunning a bear: "I don't have to outrun the bear; I only have to outrun you!" To earn the gratitude of party moderates, Moseley-Braun only has to outrun Sharpton, or, at least, make enough of a dent in his vote that one of the party's rising stars like, say, Sen. John Edwards of neighboring North Carolina, won't be embarrassed.
Still, that charisma gap remains. Since the passing of Bill Clinton, who knew how to put Sister Souljah between himself and the leftward pull of Jesse Jackson in 1992, the party has fallen back into the sort of racial and ideological divisiveness that plagued its national campaigns in the 1980s.
And it does not say much for the depth of the Democratic field of potential talent that the only non-white woman ready to take on Sharpton and the rest carries as much baggage as Moseley-Braun does.
But I will not say that she'll never win. I've learned better than to say "never" when it comes to politics.
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