From Sideshow to Big Tent

A Campaign Plan for Making Al Sharpton Matter

Racial profiling and police brutality do not a platform make. To mount more than a vanity campaign, Sharpton needs to move beyond his standard harangues against overzealous cops. Obviously, Sharpton must harp on traditional Democratic issues: reproductive rights, affirmative action, and the environment. But he also must be vocal on issues abandoned by both Democrats and Republicans after 9-11.

Centrist Democrats have been so quiet on the death penalty, for instance, that the most active politician on the issue became Republican George Ryan, now the former governor of Illinois. Education promises to be big next year, given that Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative has been exposed as smoke and mirrors. While campaigning, Bush ran ads declaring that reading is "the new civil right." Once in office, Bush treated "the new civil right" the same way Republicans had treated the old ones—by passing toothless legislation.

Sharpton must hammer Bush for foisting a con job on American children. But more than simply hammering Bush, he needs a very specific proposal of his own, for education and any other issue he takes on. At Wednesday's forum, several candidates presented plans that will ultimately define their campaigns. Dean pushed health care for all children, North Carolina senator John Edwards argued for tax credits for family leave, and former House minority leader Richard Gephardt proposed tax incentives for businesses to give workers health care. Sharpton, for all his eloquence and folksiness, went long on rhetoric but short on specifics. "I'm glad Saddam Hussein was toppled," he said. "But I'd like to see things toppled in this country, like poverty and illiteracy."

illustration: Joseph Malina

If Sharpton is to be more than a sideshow, he has to surround himself with people who are smarter than he is—campaign operatives who can absorb the intricacies of taxes, homeland security, and welfare reform, and then school him. Not having the burden of trying to win frees up Sharpton to push important ideas that may not be poll winners. "There are real issues out there, but he has to show himself to be knowledgeable," says Aronowitz. "He's got to have a firm grasp of international relations. It's not enough to say, 'I'm against the war.' What is his approach to foreign policy? Where does he stand on taxes? Is he for a single-payer health plan?"


Sharpton must—absolutely must—get invited to the big debates in January. The only way to do that is to get his numbers up and to show a command of the issues.

When NARAL Pro-Choice America held a fundraising dinner honoring the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it was the first time the six declared Democratic candidates appeared on the same stage (Carol Moseley Braun would join the race later). Sharpton told the crowd of being confronted by a picketer who asked how a minister could be pro-choice: "I said, 'Young lady, it's time for the Christian right to meet the right Christians.' I trust my momma's decision more than I trust anyone who lives in the White House." Sharpton drew loud applause, and along with the surging Dean, proved to be the night's star.

Moreover, he flexed his muscle. "His rivals will have an impossible time dealing with him," Mark Green told the Times. "At the end of the day, they will have to get 50 percent plus one and attract white, black, Latino, and swing voters. All he has to do is attract a strong niche of voters and he's free to attack others when they are loath to respond in kind for fear of offending his niche."

If Sharpton is muted, and forced to press his message with 10-second bites, he can expect to make little dent in the primaries. But should he manage to slide into the debates, he will be rewarded with a national audience.


David Bositis, the analyst, says he gets press inquiries all the time about the chances of particular candidates. He says he never overlooks the great variable. "One of the factors that I always point out is luck," says Bositis. For Sharpton, he says, luck means a wide-open race with no obvious front-runner.

As it stands, Sharpton is threatening in the South Carolina primary, where 60 percent of those who turned out for the last Democratic primary were black. Bositis argues that if the field remains as unsettled when the polls open in February as it is now, Sharpton could stay in the hunt elsewhere. "He has to get a significant share of the black vote," says Bositis. "But if one candidate breaks out of the pack, it ain't gonna happen, because that candidate will build momentum and start getting 60 percent of the vote. . . .There have to be two to three Democrats who for the first month or two are still in the race."


Perhaps the biggest hyperbole of Ralph Nader's campaign was the assertion that somehow Al Gore was just as bad as George Bush. History has not been kind to that argument. Bush's zeal for tax cuts, his recent position on the Michigan affirmative action case, and his lust for war have exposed the fault line among conservatives and even middle-of-the-road Democrats.

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