WASHINGTON — YOU CANNOT find many political professionals who believe there is any realistic chance the Democrats will nominate Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia for president next year. The conventional wisdom, supported by substantial evidence from both polls and election returns, is that the electorate is not yet prepared to accept a black candidate on a national ticket.
But Wilder's decision to test the waters for a campaign is one that many Democratic Party leaders will welcome for reasons they cannot discuss publicly. He is the one candidate who can help solve the party's continuing problem with Jesse Jackson.
The presence of a second black candidate in the Democratic field would be, in itself, enough to dilute Jackson's power. But Wilder is not only an alternative black candidate but one who disagrees quite clearly with Jackson on fundamental issues and, more to the point, one who will not be shy about expressing himself. If Wilder can quarrel with Jackson's views, it clearly would be easier for white candidates to do so without running the risk of being accused of racism.
In both the 1984 and 1988 campaigns, Jackson was an intimidating force within the Democratic Party. Except for Walter F. Mondale in 1984, none of the other Democrats who competed for those two nominations had the civil rights credentials or political history to attract much black support. Because black Democrats were so overwhelmingly supportive of Jackson, none the white candidates -- including Mondale -- was willing to criticize Jackson because all were convinced the Democratic nominee could not win a general election without solid black backing.
The result was that Jackson was treated as if he had fenders. The other candidates deferred to him in debates by, for example, failing to challenge statements they would not have accepted so benignly from white rivals. Even when Jackson became embroiled in the anti-Semitic "Hymietown" episode in 1984, the other Democrats tiptoed around him. At both the 1984 and 1988 conventions, he was paid obeisance far beyond what other losing candidates might have enjoyed.
The result in both 1984 and 1988 was the perception that the nominees, Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis, had made concessions to Jackson that many white Democrats -- most obviously in the South but not exclusively so by any means -- saw as a reason to turn away from the Democratic line. In fact, neither Mondale nor Dukakis made such concessions, but the reality was never as important as the perception.
Wilder's presence in the Democratic field, if he finally decides to run, would make it unlikely the "Jackson problem" would recur in the same way a third time. On the contrary, it would be no !B surprise if Wilder were the candidate most willing, as well as the one most politically able, to challenge Jackson.
Although Jackson and Wilder have a publicly cordial relationship, the Virginia governor and veteran of 20 years in state politics has never made any bones about the distance he feels from the longtime civil rights activist whose only public "office" is his current one as a "shadow senator" from the District of Columbia. When Wilder made his first run for statewide office, for lieutenant governor in 1985, he made a point of not inviting "outside" advocates into the state to campaign for him, a policy clearly aimed at excluding Jackson. Running for governor in 1989, he followed the same policy. In both cases he managed to get enough white votes to win, a share that he might not have received if identified with Jackson.
But Wilder and Jackson differ on issues as well as style. Although Wilder is a conventionally liberal Democrat on such social issues as civil rights and abortion rights, his "new mainstream" philosophy rests heavily on a hard line against higher taxes and big government spending. He has demonstrated as much in closing a $2 billion budget gap in Virginia.
It would be a mistake to write off Wilder's presidential candidacy as solely or even largely a response or reaction to Jackson. At 60, Doug Wilder is an experienced and ambitious politician who has ideas of his own that he wants to advance. He has demonstrated in two campaigns in Virginia that he can defy orthodox thinking by enlisting impressive white support. He is clearly qualified to play in the big leagues.
But to many Democrats, the importance of Doug Wilder's candidacy is the promise it offers for neutralizing Jesse Jackson.