Washington THE PARTY line on Jesse Jackson's decision not to seek the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination is that his absence from the race should mean that the party will be able to decide earlier on its nominee. And that prospect is causing a deep sigh of relief among party insiders.
Democratic Party strategists insist that whether Jackson ran was not so much of a concern to them as clear-cut decision now to get in or out, so that voters would be able to look at the field of declared candidates with certainty that it was the field. Only then would those candidates begin to have an audience listening to what they had to say.
The same is said about the soul-searching of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Until he makes a go or no-go decision and makes it known, voters won't know definitely the choices they will have in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. That's why Democratic National Charman Ron Brown has been urging Cuomo to fish or cut bait sometime very soon.
There is, however, a distinct if unspoken difference among party insiders in the way they have viewed Jackson and Cuomo as potential candidates. Most have devoutly wished for the no-go decision that Jackson has now made, while prayerfully hoping Cuomo will come down the other way. The obvious reason is most of these insiders do not think Jackson can be elected while believing that the one Democrat who has the best chance is Cuomo.
But equally critical is the conviction that Jackson as a candidate posed a real threat to Brown's stated goal to have the party decide early on its nominee, so the party could then concentrate on the campaign against President Bush. Jackson's special base of support among black voters and his wide name identification enabled him to stay in the nomination race in 1984 and 1988 long after others had been obliged, by lack of ballot success and lack of money, to drop out.
In 1988 particularly, Jackson persevered as an active candidate into the Democratic National Convention despite weekly defeats the hands of the well-heeled eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis. Although it was clear by May that Dukakis would be the nominee, Jackson's staying power obliged Dukakis to campaign primary states into June, and to spend valuable time later dealing with Jackson's demands on platform and other party matters.
Brown has been emphatic in saying he wants the Democratic presidential field completed and then for that field to conduct a lively competition in the early primaries and caucuses through the Super Tuesday collection of contests on March 10, quickly winnowing down the field.
The survivors, if there is more than one, would then compete in such major states as Michigan, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania through April, by which time a de facto nominee would be evident. Jackson's bowing out removes the most obvious potential fly in the ointment.
Jackson's decision also opens the way for the others to compete for the party's critical black vote in a manner that Jackson's candidacies in 1984 and 1988 precluded. While it is assumed that Gov. Douglas Wilder as a black candidate will siphon off a good share of that vote, his more conservative views invite aggressive competition for the same vote from others, all of whom are campaigning on issues of concern to black voters -- health care, day care, jobs and the threats of higher inner-city crime and drug use.
Eddie Williams, director of the Joint Center for Political Studies, Washington's leading think-tank on black politics, suggests however that without Jackson in the field, party leaders might now focus on broadening the Democratic base among white Southern males, and that turnout among black voters could fall off. But he too sees the issues that all of the declared Democratic candidates are pushing as potentially a strong incentive for a good black turnout even with Jackson out of the race.
The conventional wisdom is that the most liberal of these, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, stands along with Wilder to gain most from Jackson's no-go decision. But one party strategist notes that Jimmy Carter, a moderate, garnered a heavy black vote in 1976 because Southern blacks felt comfortable with him, a factor that could work for Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. In any event, Jackson's decision against running will make life easier for all the others, and for the party too.