WASHINGTON — JESSE JACKSON has added a significant new element of uncertainty to the embryonic contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, the civil rights leader says he is giving "the most serious consideration" to a third campaign for the presidency.
The Assumption in the political community for the past several months has been that Jackson would not run again in 1992. He has been negotiating with CNN for a televised talk show. He had lost some stature by declining to run for mayor of the District of Columbia. Some erstwhile supporters were warning that he might be seen as "a black Harold Stassen" -- a perennial loser -- if he tried for the White House again.
But Jackson has never played orthodox politics. Now he says it will be "several weeks" before he decides. He keeps reminding everyone that he polled seven million votes in the 1988 primaries. And he has been granted, at his request, a place on the speaking program at the Democratic National Committee meeting in Los Angeles this weekend.
This is hardly welcome news for a Democratic Party already suffering ridicule because so many of its leading figures have been frightened out of running against President Bush next year. Democratic nominees Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 suffered significant defections of white conservatives who were convinced they had made too many concessions to placate Jesse Jackson.
It wasn't true but it was clearly the perception. Now the party is again faced with finding a formula that will mollify a black leader who has the highest negatives of any figure on the national political stage.
Jackson's threat to run is potentially damaging both to the one black candidate actively in the field, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, and to the three white candidates considered the most serious contenders right now -- Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
At the extreme, a Jackson candidacy would result in a direct and quite possibly scarring confrontation between him and Wilder for black voters in the primaries next year. It is no secret that Jackson and Wilder are cool to one another. But even if he doesn't run, Jackson's suggestion that there is no candidate out there representing his views adequately is an obvious thrust at Wilder.
The new Jackson dance also makes it more difficult for Harkin, Kerrey and Clinton to compete for the support of blacks in the primaries and caucuses. Harkin and Kerrey represent states in which blacks make up less than 5 percent of the population, so they have little history of dealing with black leaders. And although Clinton has had a good relationship with blacks in Arkansas, where they represent more than 15 percent, he has been publicly at odds with Jackson.
The critical point is that for two election cycles now none of the white candidates for a Democratic nomination except Fritz Mondale has enjoyed any continuing political relationship with black leaders that could help in putting together a campaign. With Jackson out of the picture and Wilder coming from a different direction, it seemed that Clinton, Harkin and Kerrey all might have the chance to compete for black support. But the possibility Jackson may run after all makes that far more difficult.
It may be that Jackson is just playing one of his political games. It is easy for those who have followed his career to suspect that he is simply reacting to another black leader, Doug Wilder, intruding on his turf. Jackson has always craved the attention he commands as a candidate and resented being ignored when he was not. Campaigning for Dukakis during the 1988 general election campaign, he routinely called the Washington Post national editors to keep the newspaper posted on his personal schedule.
But Jackson has never seemed concerned about whether his activities might backfire on the Democratic Party. He demonstrated that when he spent the entire summer of 1984 jerking Mondale around in public before finally endorsing him in an embarrassing scene on Labor Day weekend. Four years later he made a big show of going to Atlanta to bargain with Dukakis over the terms of his surrender.
Jesse Jackson is a politician with an eye on the cameras. His new threat to run again guarantees he will be watched for the next several weeks.