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Steve Cobble: July 17, 1984: Carrying the Baton from King to Obama

July 17th, 2009, 07:07 pm admin Leave a comment Go to comments

“Our flag is red, white, and blue, but our nation is a rainbow–red, yellow, brown, black, and white–and we are all precious in God’s sight…America is not a blanket–one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt–many patches, many places, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread…
“Twenty years later, we cannot be satisfied by just restoring the old coalition. Old wine skins must make room for new wine. We must heal and expand.”

–Jesse Jackson, 1984 Democratic National Convention–
25 years ago today, July 17, 1984, a young African-American preacher and civil rights activist took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. For roughly an hour, he held an ever-growing television audience spellbound.
Millions and millions of Americans got their first live TV taste of the redemptive power of the African-American social gospel. And they liked it. American politics got more mature that night, more inclusive. The possibilities for change expanded. The possibility of a future African-American President grew exponentially.

“We are often reminded that we live in a great nation–and we do. But it can be greater still. The Rainbow is mandating a new definition of greatness. We must not measure greatness from the mansion down, but from the manger up…Jesus said that we must measure greatness by how we treat the least of these.”

I have written before about the concrete changes wrought by Jackson’s two Presidential campaigns in 1984 & 1988 (see, for example: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080901/cobble ), changes that took African-Americans a long way up the mountainside.
Consider the 2 million voters who were registered during Jackson’s 1984 campaign, and another million registered by the end of his 1988 campaign, most of them young, most of them African-American–and most of them still voting 24 years later, helping Barack Obama carry states like South Carolina and North Carolina in the primaries, and win Virginia and North Carolina in the fall.
Or consider the Democratic Party rules changes the Jackson campaigns forced on the party establishment, forcing proportional representation into the delegate selection process, lowering the threshold for winning delegates, eliminating all winner-take-all and “bonus” delegate selection rules. (Note: I was Jackson’s 1988 National Delegate Coordinator.)
These changes alone won the primaries for Obama over Clinton. This is a mathematical statement, not a rhetorical one. The elimination of winner-take-all primaries in states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey and California (all of them won by Hillary Clinton), and of “bonus” primaries in states like Ohio (also carried by Clinton), meant that Barack Obama could accumulate enough delegates from caucus states and smaller primary states to take–and then keep–the delegate lead.
Look at Pennsylvania alone. Clinton carried the state in a hotly-contested primary by about 9%. Because the Jackson rules changes meant that the delegates were distributed proportionately, Clinton’s victory garnered her a net gain of only about 10-12 delegates, at a time when she trailed in “earned” delegates by 100-150. Under the old rules, Pennsylvania used to have “winner-take-all” by Congressional district, which would have made a huge difference in the delegate results. The likely result would have been a statewide Clinton delegate margin of 130-150 delegates!
Given that she already would have won more delegates in New Jersey, California, Ohio, etc., under the old rules, this certainly would have been enough of a switch to put her back in the lead. In short, under the old rules, Hillary Clinton would have won the primaries.
It takes nothing away from the absolutely brilliant campaign that Obama & Axelrod & Plouffe ran last year to point out that because of Jackson’s two incredible campaigns, they got to start closer to the finish line.
There is also the psychological aspect of running for President. Young African-Americans interested in politics for the first time got to see one of their own winning Presidential debates, winning primaries and caucuses, winning delegates. When Jackson carried Mississippi in 1984, 20 years after Freedom Summer and Fannie Lou Hamer in Atlantic City, that was clearly hope becoming real. When we pulled a stunning upset in Michigan in March of 1988, and took the lead in the nomination race, that was clearly a change. When we won Puerto Rico’s primary, and Vermont’s and Alaska’s caucuses, that suggested a new mindset–and a new politics–was possible.

“If you want change in this nation, you enforce that Voting Rights Act…If Blacks vote in great numbers, progressive Whites win. It’s the only way progressive Whites win. If Blacks vote in great numbers, Hispanics win. When Blacks, Hispanics, and progressive Whites vote, women win. When women win, children win. When women and children win, workers win. We must all come up together. We must come up together.”

Here’s the last point I want to make–that Jesse Jackson is smarter than he is ever given credit for, especially when it comes to political strategy. Consider the quote above, especially in combination with the quote I used to open this essay–is there a better short summary of the essence of the politics of progressive success? Is there a more poetic expression of the need to expand the party base to win?
Isn’t this an early test version of Obama ‘08–an electoral strategy based on expanding the party, depending on young voters, winning a unified African-American vote, piecing together a “majority-minority” victory?
For those of you who are young, it is important to understand that the Rainbow’s “expansion” strategy for the Democratic Party was widely disparaged by the pundits, the mainstream media, the party insiders–in fact, the DLC was explicitly created to counter such a progressive strategy, with its stated goal of winning back the Reagan male and Southern White voters.
Instead, a quarter of a century later, Barack Obama won the Presidency with an expansion electoral strategy, ovecoming a Republican Party which is still too Southern, too White, too male.
It was Jesse Jackson who articulated the vision that fits most smoothly with the demographic changes that are transforming our politics. It was Jackson who made the case for a party strategy that started with minority voters as our base vote. It was Jackson who registered young people wherever he went, campaigning even in high schools among those too young to vote–and ended up carrying the youth vote in 1988.
Jackson did not win the nomination. But in 1988, he did win 7 million votes, 13 primaries and caucuses, and 1,218.5 delegates. All were landmark accomplishments at the time. All were done with little money and no internet. All built the foundation for bigger successes in the future.
Jackson’s 1984 & 1988 campaigns are the precursor to Barack Obama’s success in 2008, much as Barry Goldwater’s 1964 effort sowed the seeds that led 16 years later to Ronald Reagan.
Jackson became a prophet of change, setting out a vision of how to make America better by expanding the party to include more of America. He taught us to keep hope alive. His vision of expansion was vindicated by Obama’s incredible campaign and historic victory.
Jesse Jackson took the baton from Dr. King, and made up ground as he ran his leg of the relay race for a long generation, followed by Barack Obama sprinting brilliantly across the finish line to higher ground.

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