Apr 1 1992

A Short Walk on the Wilder Side

The pundits had a dream—the Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder would drive Jesse Jackson from the public stage. Doug Wilder, a self-described fiscal conservative who advocated budget cuts, supported capital punishment and bragged of his state’s “right to work” (anti-union) laws, was a moderate black who would, in the words of the 1992 Almanac of American Politics, “undercut Jesse Jackson, whose radical policies and angry demeanor have hurt Democrats so much with American voters.”

Most of this wishful thinking came out after Wilder’s 1989 gubernatorial victory. “Democratic strategists are already calculating that Mr. Wilder’s victory is…bad news for Jesse Jackson,” reported the Baltimore Sun (11/9/89). “We may see the sun beginning to set on ‘the Jesse Jackson era’,” predicted the Boston Globe’s Robert Jordan (12/4/89). “If I were Jesse Jackson,” said Rowland Evans (CNN, 12/31/89), “I’d be a little afraid of the governor of Virginia.”

“Does the Democratic Party finally have Jesse Jackson off its back?” asked the McLaughlin Group’s John McLaughlin. Said George Will on This Week with David Brinkley (11/12/89), “Jesse Jackson now must look around and see there are lots of other responsible office-holding black leaders, so he cannot wag the Democratic Party quite so much.”

Juan Williams, in the Washington Post Magazine (6/9/91), went so far as to call Wilder “arguably the most important black American politician of the 20th Century,” writing, “It is not just that Wilder is an alternative to the best-known black spokesman, Jesse Jackson: his success is a rebuke to Jackson’s 1980s political vision of blacks as America’s victims.”

Such talk led Wilder to almost immediately enter the presidential race, despite an approval rating in his home state that eventually dropped to 23 percent. Dozens of pundits had assured him that his moderate politics would attract more white support than Jackson’s fiery populism, while maintaining the same African-American base Jackson commanded.

Jackson received 3.5 million votes in 1984; in 1988, he won 7 million, including almost 2.5 million white and Latino votes. He was supported by 92 percent of African-American voters, and took 29 percent of all votes cast. When he took himself out of the 1992 race, he was leading or second to Mario Cuomo in all polls.

Wilder, of course, didn’t even make it to the first primary, dropping out with 1 percent in the New Hampshire polls.

The lesson is clear: Rather than appointing leaders (only one of whom, it seems, can be African-American at any one time) the conventional wisdom should wait to let the voters decide.