Jesse Jackson's announcement that he will not enter the Democratic presidential primaries in 1992 is probably good news for at least two announced candidates, for the party in general and for black Democrats.
We say "probably" because Mr. Jackson described his decision as "a pit stop to get new tires and overhaul our motor. We're going to come back faster and stronger than ever before." The word is that he will not put the pedal back to the metal before 1996, but we can imagine a 1992 scenario in which he is an active candidate.
But first, why do we believe it is in the party's best interest and black Democrats' best interest for Mr. Jackson to be off the track? To take the last first, with him in the race, other Democrats make less of an effort (almost none, in fact) to court and listen to black voters. In 1988 and 1984, Mr. Jackson got almost all the black vote in the primaries. He also got only about 12-15 percent of the white vote. If he is rejected by that many white Democrats, you can imagine how unpopular he is with white independents and Republicans. His highly visible and demanding presence in the nominating process hurts the party at election time.
The candidates most likely to benefit from Mr. Jackson's decision are Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. The former is a black moderate who is trying to do in 1992 what Mr. Jackson could not do in 1988 and 1984 -- create a substantial coalition of black and white voters in the primary states. Governor Wilder did that in Virginia's 1989 gubernatorial race, and if he can stop his early stumbling in the preliminaries to the primaries, he may do it again in 1992. Senator Harkin's fiery populist rhetoric is intended to expand the white part of the old Jackson coalition while retaining much of the black part.
The earlier a party settles its presidential nomination contest, the better it does in the general election. Jesse Jackson's decision to oppose the winning nominees long after the primary voters had rejected him in 1988 and 1984 was harmful to the party. (This is the Democrats' political equivalent of a fatal genetic flaw. Gary Hart so behaved in 1984, as did Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1980.)
Mr. Jackson's decision not to run in the primaries should make it more likely that the Democrats will have a winner relatively early in 1992. If they do not -- if, in fact, they do not have a winner even by the final lap, if the decision is left up in the air and up to the national convention, do not be surprised if the Jackson car comes roaring right into the pack.