Al vs. the Dems

Presidential Candidate Sharpton Goes After His Party

It was a sure sign that Reverend Al Sharpton's run for the presidency will bring out the worst in some folks when, last Thursday, Jay Leno, standing with the candidate and Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl Petra Nemcova, said he was hosting "Beauty and the Beast." Sharpton threw back his head and laughed gamely, but he is braced for a fight.

Sharpton views his campaign as a battle royal between the progressive "children of the rainbow" and the Democratic Leadership Council that brought Bill Clinton to power and turned the Democratic Party, as he says, "to the right, not the center." Presumably some rainbow children voted for Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and facing the permanent problem that no one deals with our issues, will appreciate someone just "speaking truth to power." And a battle for the soul of the party seems even more needed now than in 1988.

It has not escaped people of color that the old arrangement of voting Democratic because the alternative is worse brings home little bacon. The past decade has only exacerbated entrenched problems of unemployment, racial profiling, police brutality, and poor access to education, medical care, and housing.

Sharpton: trying to stop the Dems' rightward drift
photo: Marc Asnin
Sharpton: trying to stop the Dems' rightward drift

We have now been through years of the Dems' rightward drift. Though African Americans still like Bill Clinton, we suffered most heavily his compromises, like the 1994 crime bill and welfare reform in 1996. With the aftershocks so visible in our communities, it's hard to imagine black voters in particular taking hope from senators Joe Lieberman or John Kerry or Representative Dick Gephardt.

Times are different from when Jackson ran, because the 2000 election was determined in such a novel way, and because of 9-11 and all that has followed. And perhaps most important, George W.'s much desired war with Saddam Hussein is not his daddy's war. It is a war fraught with unimagined dangers not only for our troops, but for the American people, who in 1988 had never heard of anthrax, color-coded threat levels, and the rest. Polls show that half of Democrats are against a war, along with a majority of African Americans.

Pushing a left agenda during the presidential campaign is worth doing. But does that mean Al Sharpton is the one to do it? His proposals are an array of ideas that have been around Democratic circles for a while, and these are times when serious economic ideas and social-policy thinking are needed. Several anti-war folks have jumped in now, like Representative Dennis Kucinich, who is to the left, but his anti-abortion record and low profile may get in his way.

The reverend is clearly unpopular with the honchos of his party. A November Los Angeles Times poll of three-fourths of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) found 66 percent had a negative view of Sharpton. DNC insiders have been reported as saying they are tired of his carping, and are looking for someone else to energize the black vote. Democratic spin doctors say he's a joke, while Republican pundits are showing him love.

If George Bush does get us into a war, as a friend said to me, the public may want to turn to an army man to get us out. If the Dems are looking for their very own Dwight Eisenhower, General Wesley Clark, who gives some vivid descriptions of the horrors that may await U.S. troops, may be more of a problem to Sharpton than most of the others now in the race.

But at February 15's anti-war protest in New York, Sharpton was the only candidate visible, and when his voice rang out on the boomboxes overhead on Third Avenue, the surging crowd quieted. Earlier that morning I sat with Sharpton as he had a modest dish of eggs and grits at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem.

THULANI DAVIS: What did you think about the city refusing a permit for a peace march?

AL SHARPTON: I think that it is more of the war on civil liberties. It's insane that we have more of a reactionary policy in 2003 around the war in Iraq than we did in the late '60s around Vietnam. Who would have thought in 2003 that you would not get a permit to march in New York for any reason?

Since you oppose war, how do you think we should deal with Iraq? We should respect the UN process. I think when Bush went to the UN, literally stuck his finger in their faces and said, in effect, my way or the highway—without even paying our UN bill—he set a tone that not only challenged the world to support a flawed policy in Iraq but undermined the credibility of the UN. It's dangerous for the world. It's particularly dangerous for the United States because it's going to isolate [us] even more in a world that does not react the way it did 50 years ago to intimidation by superpowers.

What can we do improve our relationship with the Arab world? I think we need a more balanced foreign policy. We've got to respect the sovereignty of Arab nations. We've got to deal with our engagement with those forces that are reactionary there that have oppressed and exploited the Arab people. And the Arab people know that we have been partners to them, from the shah of Iran to the royal family of Saudi Arabia. We've got to respect the rights of the Palestinians to have a state, and we've got to not act as though we can decide how people ought to govern themselves and who ought to be part of that government. We can't, on the one hand, support oligarchies, misogynist leadership, people with human rights records that are horrific, and, on the other hand, attack Hussein and expect it to ring credible in the Arab world.

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