OPED: Emotional push for Trump, Sanders may fade
With emotion providing much of the fuel propelling the anti-establishment campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, their supporters should consider the fates of past presidential candidates once the exuberance faded and voters focused on who could actually turn rhetoric into action.
The excitement displayed by young people at rallies for Sanders brings to mind the "Run, Jesse, Run" campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1984, when the civil rights leader who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attracted both black and white voters with a message that Sanders has mirrored in calling attention to income inequality.
"President Reagan says the nation is in recovery. Those 90,000 corporations that made a profit last year but paid no federal taxes are recovering," Jackson said. "The 37,000 military contractors who have benefited from Reagan's more than doubling of the military budget in peacetime, surely they are recovering. The big corporations and rich individuals who received the bulk of a three-year, multibillion tax cut from Mr. Reagan are recovering. But no such recovery is underway for the least of these."
That was from Jackson's speech to the Democratic National Convention in July 1984, when his defeat by former Vice President Walter Mondale had become certain. I saw him earlier when he spoke to a raucous crowd in Birmingham prior to Alabama's primary on Super Tuesday.
"Electric" is the best word I can think of to describe the feeling inside Boutwell Auditorium that night. Jackson took to the stage like a rock star and stoked the crowd of about 5,000 to a fever pitch with his famous call-and-response chant “I am . . . Somebody.”
Having grown up in Birmingham when segregation ruled and four little girls were killed in a church bombing, I don't mind saying it was hard for me to keep in mind that I was covering the rally for United Press International and shouldn't get caught up in the moment. But someone else there may have had a much harder time remembering his role.
Birmingham's first black mayor, Richard Arrington Jr., joined Jackson on the stage and was wildly cheered by the crowd when introduced by the candidate, who embraced him. But Arrington, like most of Alabama's top black political leaders, was committed to Mondale. They were being pragmatic. They expected that Mondale would survive challenges by Jackson and Colorado Sen. Gary Hart and become the party nominee.
In rural areas, however, Jackson's candidacy fired up black voters and politicians, including 23 of Alabama's 25 black mayors, who gave him their unswerving support. That helped Jackson win two-thirds of the African-American vote in the Georgia, Alabama and Florida primaries. But Mondale got enough black votes to win in Georgia and Alabama, while Hart took Florida. Jackson would eventually win the Washington, D.C., South Carolina and Louisiana primaries, and narrowly lose in Mississippi's convoluted caucus system.
The same pragmatism that saw many black leaders support Mondale in 1984 was also evident in 2008. Black voters didn't immediately see upstart Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as a viable candidate. Some even questioned Obama's blackness, just as Ben Carson did with comments referencing Obama's white mother and childhood in Indonesia.
In 2008, the Rev. Al Sharpton was among those discounting Obama's candidacy. "I think it's really racist for people to assume just because somebody is black, we ought to automatically support them," said Sharpton, who, by the way, met with Sanders earlier this month in Harlem.
It was only after it became evident that Obama could win the Democratic nomination that many in the black political establishment, including a previously ambivalent Jackson, began to openly show signs of support.
Once Obama became the party's nominee, the floodgates of emotion were open as African-Americans could taste the possibility of electing a black president. No doubt Hillary Clinton is hoping for a similar surge of support from young women when the possibility of her becoming the first female president becomes more palpable.
That moment could come soon if Sanders falters in the coming Southern primaries, where black voters who supported Bill Clinton are expected to turn out for Hillary. She, too, is being helped by the black political elite, who show no signs of abandoning their tradition of supporting the establishment candidate.
Sanders hasn't given up on generating black support. But Sanders doesn't have Clinton’s history, including work as a young lawyer with the Children's Defense Fund, which helps her message resonate with black voters.
On the Republican side, Trump continues to win primaries by making bombastic statements that appeal to voters' emotions without providing the details to determine whether his ideas would actually work.
What the Republicans need is a moment like the one Mondale had during a 1984 debate when he dismissed Hart's candidacy by derisively asking, "Where's the beef?" The humorous allusion to a Wendy's commercial suggested that Hart's ideas were like a hamburger without meat. That got voters' attention 32 years ago. No doubt some establishment Republicans are praying for a similar moment for Trump today.
Voters need to focus on who can be an effective president. Emotion has its place in choosing a candidate. But if emotion is all that person can offer, he isn't the right person for the job.
— Harold Jackson is editorial page editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer.