April 5, 1988
OP-ED COLUMN: THEY MISLED THE VOTERS ON JACKSON
By CHARLES V. HAMILTON
In the wake of the frenzy after the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Michigan victory, we should all calm down as the normal process of the candidates’ competition for votes goes forward. That process is unduly beset by the intervention of a host of other players – political pundits in and out of the media, and pollsters – who are scurrying around analyzing this, interpreting that, projecting, assuming and concluding all over the place.
These so-called experts tend to create a political picture that might well be at variance with what is actually happening between the candidates and voters.
What counts, of course, is who the voters choose in the primaries, caucuses and conventions. But the constant attention to ”what does Jesse Jackson want?” – when all along he has been saying what he wants and apparently winning the agreement of very many voters – is distracting. Why not ask those who voted for him what they want and let their answers be sufficient for the time being?
The focus on Mr. Jackson’s ”lack of experience” in government is obviously an important concern. But why do we behave as if the experience factor becomes important only when pundits raise it? Can we really assume that Mr. Jackson’s sizeable number of supporters in the electorate have been unaware of his resume?
Why is it necessary to sit around talking endlessly about Mr. Jackson’s ”electability” when he is steadily going forward, working within the system and gaining impressive results – indeed, acting like he is electable?
Clearly, it is the voters’ experience with other leaders over the years -not that of the pundits – that is the crucial factor as they think about which candidate to support. Why do we seem to assume they have not considered his experience and electability?
To sum up, why must we stress speculative, hypothetical worlds, when there is in fact a dynamic, legitimate process going on before our very eyes?
If we want to make sure that all the candidates, Mr. Jackson included, flesh out definitive positions on the issues, fine. But then let’s listen as the voters continue to pose hard questions. Let’s not let the pundits do our thinking for us. Let’s not presume the answers, and by no means should we presume ”unelectability,” ”Jackson is too liberal” – in other words, how the voters will respond. There is a place for that: the election booth.
I understand the temptation to speculate, and I certainly appreciate the fascination and attraction of political prospecting. But if we really want to make the relationship between the candidates and voters as unencumbered as possible, why not do so by riveting primarily on what the contenders are saying, probing them more if necessary, and on what the voters understand and do?
Early on, the pundits saw Mr. Jackson’s candidacy as laudable but symbolic; then the voters began to make it increasingly credible.
Then the pundits began to focus on ”what does Jesse want?” The voters have given their answer: the Presidency.
Then the pundits zeroed in on whether a black could win enough white votes to be elected; never mind that in every state thus far Mr. Jackson has been dramatically improving upon the support that white voters gave him when he sought the Democratic nomination in 1984.
Something has been going on in the lives and minds of those whites to cause this impressive increase in support. How do we know where it might lead? The pundits have been caught often enough with their polls and paradigms down for them to exercise much more caution in their seemingly certain conclusions.
Why not ignore this essentially unproductive, unsophisticated, premature speculation?
In the long run, this would better serve the voters and the political process and contribute to more interesting – indeed, significant – commentary on the historic importance of the Jackson phenomenon.
Mr. Jackson has already created enough dynamism and healthy innovation in the political process to cause the pundits to be a lot more humble about what the people want and will do, and where this nation is going.