Politics Mondays: E-Letter To Reverend Al Sharpton Re: Advice For Your Campaign
I thought that I might write you this open letter of advice in the hopes that you and the viewers of BlackElectorate.com might think together about some of the dynamics of the 2004 presidential campaign and what they mean to the process of arriving at, and furthering, Black America's self-enlightened interest as well as the best avenue for your electoral and political success. The two events need not be mutually exclusive.
I honestly believe that, at the moment, you and Ms. Donna Brazile are the two most important political leaders in Black America and that the community's best interests could either be advanced or setback by as much as a generation, depending upon how the two of you maneuver juxtaposed to the 2004 campaign and one another. I also intend to publish an open E-letter written to Ms. Brazile, offering advice, in the coming weeks at BlackElectorate.com. Both of my public communications come out of two larger documents of a more private nature that I intend to give to both of you (one for Ms. Brazile and one for you) the next time I am blessed to see each of you in person.
In early 1998 when you and I first met in your office in Harlem we discussed the relationship between the Black vote and the two-party system. You stated to me at that time that you did not necessarily believe that the Black vote's favoring of the Democratic Party was necessarily an expression of the Black community's self-enlightened interests but that it represented an effective strategy toward the attainment of the community's best interests. I agree and in that context I think your campaign represents one of the most important vehicles in decades, available to the community as it pursues its best interests through the political process. I also think that it is possible for the Black community and you personally to benefit as much by your securing the Democratic Party's nomination as by your "failure" to do so. It all will be determined by the quality of your campaign this year and your decision-making, strategy and tactics during the 2004 Democratic Party convention. If possible, I would like to help you win - for the benefit of our people and this country. There are a few points that I think are of considerable importance for you to consider and discuss with your closest advisers. What I offer below is just food-for-thought in the way of some analysis, ideas and suggestions that I think are very important for the Sharpton-For-President campaign to digest.
Leveraging Your Position In the Political Marketplace. With the latest entrants into the increasingly crowded Democratic field, the most urgent procedure you can undertake is determining with certainty the position that you occupy in the minds of the American electorate and Democratic Party members. Your campaign, if it is to succeed, must excel at political marketing. It must determine the words and ideas that you "own" in that market rather than pursuing the market position that you desire most; your campaign should be enabling you to get the most out of the market position that you currently hold in the minds of the majority of people. While I think you have been successful at demonstrating your loyalty to the Democratic Party at this early stage, and while I recognize that your claim to the Party banner is increasingly seen as "authentic"; you should be mindful that such a partisan strategy can rapidly reach the point of diminishing returns as its continued execution risks the possibility of you being perceived as neither "this nor that" by your Black base which really does not like to think of you as a professional politician, and by Democratic Party loyalists who view your political overtures as self-serving more than evidence of your desire to be a team player. You lose trust with your base group and do not increase it with the Party by too rapidly styling yourself as an "alternative Democrat" rather than a "truth-telling activist." It is the position that you occupy in the minds of the electorate and not the one that you covet that matters the most, right now. The position that you occupy in the minds of the American electorate, Democratic Party loyalists and even the Black community is not "alternative Democrat" but "outsider."
Reverend Sharpton, in the minds of the vast majority of people, but for different reasons, you are an Independent styling yourself as a Democrat not a Democrat styling yourself as an Independent. Don't fight to shed this position - campaigning backwards. Rather, use this perception to your advantage. Few Black preachers in political activity have ever realized their true market position in the political arena and as a result have continually delivered their awesome power in civil society to the State, at a bargain basement price.
Where spiritual and community leaders have failed, in American politics, military leaders have succeeded. Look deep into the history of General William Harrison and his being "drafted" by the Whig Party as its presidential nominee in 1840 and why Republicans recruited General Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for President in 1952 and of course reflect over the on-going recruitment of General Colin Powell as a presidential candidate.
Once in an MSNBC appearance I made, the host, Greg Jarret (now on Fox News), asked me to comment about General Powell's popularity as a potential candidate for president. He framed the reference in terms of race. I indicated that General Powell's electoral appeal is essentially not racial in nature. It derives from the authority and prestige that he commands as a military leader, a highly respected position in American civil society. Like General Harrison and General Eisenhower, General Powell transferred his military authority into tremendous influence and standing in civil society. Look at the Democratic Party's current pursuit of General Wesley Clark. Military leaders are permitted to have political beliefs and positions that are counter or even anathema to the Party platform because of their standing in the eyes of the masses. Rev. Sharpton, as a leader operating in civil society you have important currency that gives you leverage and magnetic appeal in the political arena. Ronald Reagan as an actor absorbed some of this, on the Republican side. You have the opportunity to ascend this path of influence, as a Reverend, still relatively early in your political path.
Rev. Sharpton, you have to grow comfortable with the idea that the most attractive political market position to own in electoral politics is really not as an anti-establishment figure as much as it is that of an outsider. Don't make the mistake of confusing the strengths and weaknesses of both categories. And don't allow your considerable ability to communicate to be misappropriated in the pursuit of a leadership or an alternative position, in the wrong political market category or even sub-category.
One of the major weaknesses of being "anti-establishment" is that you gain popularity and endless applause but people do not trust you with money or governance. Anti-establishment leaders in political terms are traditionally either "progressive" on the left or "populist" on the right. Of course your natural inclination would be to style yourself as more of a progressive, but do not fall into that line of thinking. Within the Democratic Party the progressive category is flooded with aspirants and the Party establishment is very comfortable fighting off, or buying off its progressive wing, which is generally more anti-Republican than it is "progressive" at its core.
Progressives within the Party and many that operate from without, but which benefit from the access to government power and patronage that the Democratic Party provides, are more interested in nearness to power centers than advancing a real agenda. They probably will only use you as a bargaining tool to get what they desire from the Party establishment. They do not want to elect you as much as they want you to amplify their relatively uncharismatic voice.
A "progressive partisan" as I like to call progressives who place partisan loyalty over ideology and an agenda, has no hope of success running for President within the Democratic Party. Ultimately he or she will be made to support the Party nominee, a pledge which Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe is already skillfully calling for as his only demand from candidates. Terry McAuliffe is only trying to box you in, Reverend. He sees a scenario where you withhold your blessing from the Democratic Party nominee for President.
I think you should let Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich lead the category of progressive partisans running for President. I view his entry into the race in a similar manner to how I view that of Senator Carol Moseley-Braun. The hope from Party leaders is that Rep. Kucinich will erode the inroads that you are making into the "alternative Democrat," "progressive partisan" categories just as it is hoped that Senator Moseley Braun will erode your Black support. While you certainly are the "Black" political market leader; you are potentially several rungs down the ladder in the "progressive partisan" category. Don't expend precious capital being lured into a fight that is not only stacked against you, but is actually a dead-end masquerading as opportunity.
People are justifying their interest or supposed support of you on the grounds that you will "raise issues that others won't." That is a red herring. Don't embrace it or be flattered by it. The Democrats are willing to run a candidate-per-issue if they have to in order to undermine you and take away the soft justification for support of your campaign, on grounds that you raise issues that the others don't. "Black" as a political category is more important than "progressive partisan." Protect your leadership position of that category in the primaries. Black is the most ecumenical of the non-mainstream categories allowing you to incorporate the language of other groups and schools of thought. If you sacrifice competing for the other categories you can still attract demand from those segments, as voters always cross over into other segments and project onto candidates what they want or see lacking in the current leader of their political category. Be attractive, cordial, principled and inviting. Emphasize natural points of agreements with the interests and demands of other segments but don't crossover and make the hard sell to that category. If you focus on "Black" and sacrifice "proggressive partisan," many of the progressive partisans will cross over to you during the Democratic primaries for their own reasons.
You, in my view will get more mileage, in and out of electoral politics by accepting the outsider role and by default the "independent" position that you already occupy in the minds of most Democrats. Unlike progressive partisans or professional Black Democrats, outsiders and independents have working in their favor a permissive attitude toward offering new ideas, straight-talk, and creative energy. Outsiders critique the flaws of the existing system as well as where it has failed. Outsiders offer their own ideas that rival those the Party and establishment think tanks formulate and persuade candidates to parrot. They - outsiders - grab ideas wherever they appear on the political spectrum and yet apply them with leverage at particular points of the political process and system.
Their agenda is not feigned revolution but real reform. They critique problems and offer solutions consistently. "Outsiders" are uniquely permitted and expected to speak truth to power in the language(s) of the masses and that of the classes, and offer ideas, policies and programs that highlight and challenge the glaring instances where the principle and practice of the institution fails. "Outsiders" don't turn their supporters and followers over to the existing system as dependents. They marry them as independents into it and effect a merger whereby the ideas, policies and programs of the outside group are integrated entirely, not spliced and accepted compartmentally or as part of a compromise that allows the power centers of the existing institution to remain intact and unaltered. They move their followers through dependent, independent then interdependent states. Outsider-led groups imbue the existing system with their spirit, heart and mind; and do not equate window-dressing or the appropriation by the system of their rhetoric, language and leading personalities as progress. They do not get a seat at the dinner table through a deal, as much as they do by owning their own seat, paying their own way, and affecting everyone at the table by preparing the meal. Think outside the box, then act inside of it.
Absorbing Theodore Roosevelt. While President Bush absorbs Theodore Roosevelt (TR) for his own reasons, you too must "absorb" him. In 1998 at a private gathering, I heard ace Democratic Party consultant Bob Shrum explain how Newt Gingrich absorbed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and how Ronald Reagan absorbed President John F. Kennedy (JFK). There is a tremendous amount wrapped up in what he went into. I will get more into the principle he identified and how I interpret its meaning for you in my larger private letter to you. But for now I will say that of all of the political history that I have encountered, it is Theodore Roosevelt and the election of 1912 that I believe can be the most instructive for you. There are also important lessons to be gleaned from Pat Buchanan's campaign in 1992. And I am confident that you have absorbed the most important insights to be gained from your mentor, Rev. Jesse Jackson's campaign in 1984 and 1988. But history is rich in guidance for you and there is so much in how Theodore Roosevelt placed himself opposite to the Republican Party in the time period from 1912 to 1916, that I believe can provide light in how you decide to position yourself relative to the Democratic Party during the 2004 presidential campaign.
Author John A. Gable once wrote, "Theodore Roosevelt described the work of the final phase of his career as 'being in the prophet business'." He also identifies TR as an "activist-prophet" in how he worked in the political realm, challenging partisans and bringing his influence in civil society to bear on a presidential election campaign.
Your steps can be guided by TR's history during that time period. As an outsider, you are potentially the activist-prophet in the political realm, impacting the 2004 presidential campaign and election outcome.
It is important for you to grow comfortable with the fact that your greatest leverage with the Democratic Party is the fear of what you can do to it rather than the hope of what you might do for it. Their perception is not necessarily the one that you and your supporters would like for the Party to have of you, but it is the real political market position that you occupy in the minds of most professional Democrats working in the Party, even its top political consultants. In their current zero-sum mentality, they perceive that your gain is their loss. They see you as a potential obstructionist to their continued monopoly on the Black vote.
A smaller group sees even more deeply into a possible scenario that could be harmful to them. It does not have to be that way. But you would be wise to use this fear of you playing a certain role to your advantage.
Most Democrats fear that if not "eliminated," placated or pacified, your campaign will erode the Party's strength among Black voters. But a very few influential political observers see what I have written about privately for nearly two years - that under the right circumstances there exists the potential for your leading an exodus of voters out of the Democratic Party, like Theodore Roosevelt did in the Republican Party, 91 years ago.
I suspect that you are more comfortable with the idea of taking a gradualist approach to this dynamic, having seen how you handled yourself in the 2001 New York City mayoral campaign where you responded to your mistreatment by the Democratic Party nominee Mark Green, by "sitting on your hands" not enthusiastically campaigning on his behalf. You were in an enviable position, in the estimation of many political observers. Independents wanted you to denounce Mark Green and endorse their candidate for mayor. Republicans, then as now, hoped that you would not only decide to not help the Democrat but that your mistreatment would cause you to cross party lines and endorse their nominee. And the Democrats pulled out almost every stop short of a public apology to win you back into the fold. I have it on good authority that a private meeting was arranged between former President Clinton and yourself in the final days of the New York City mayoral campaign as an effort to convince you to back Mr. Green. From what I understand the more than discreet manner in which President Clinton wanted the meeting to take place was offensive to you and the meeting, for "logistical" reasons, did not happen. I also am one of a very small group of people who read the letter that Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe wrote in response to the controversy that erupted over how you were handled in the mayoral campaign by your own Party. It was striking in its political double-speak and meaningless language aimed at not admitting the problem, not offending you, and not offending Mark Green.
Your response to what happened in the 2001 race contributed to Mayor Bloomberg, the Republican nominee who was also given independent party lines, being elected mayor of New York City. Some extremely powerful political players took note of what happened and have little stomach for a replay in a presidential election. If you cannot be deterred by some pretty stiff opposition and serious resistance in the early stages of this presidential campaign or during the Primary season, then eventually a lucrative package will be presented to you by powerful Democrats who are convinced that you can be bought and that every man has his price. At yesterday's Saviours' Day address, Minister Louis Farrakhan expressed his belief that he did not believe that you would ever sell out your own people. From my view in the Washington D.C. armory, where I viewed the event by satellite, some in the audience were elated by the Minister's loving pronouncement, others seemed surprised, and some had skeptical looks on their faces. He did not reference the 2004 Presidential election as I am now, but I am personally convinced that a significant trial and test awaits you as late as in between the 2004 Democratic Party convention and the general election that I absolutely believe will include an offer from a powerful group of Democrats (and others) that if you were to accept it, it would be interpreted by many of your core supporters as "selling out" your people. Unlike the 2001 mayoral race, it will not be just the political classes that will be courting you, but also the political masses - who will more astutely than ever be looking to hold you accountable if you bargain away their votes, delegates and best interests.
Don't just hint at your willingness to do by the 2004 presidential campaign as you did by the Party's 2001 New York City mayoral nominee. The Party establishment is prepared for the gradualist approach you took relative to the mayoral race. You need more leverage. Allow at least an inference that you are willing to go all the way in pursuit of the interests and return on the investment that your supporters are making in you and expect of you. Indicate that you will not allow partisan parameters to dictate the political avenues you travel on your way to that goal. Again, how Theodore Roosevelt handled himself in 1912 is a sign of an avenue that you might pursue in 2004. Keep your options open. More influential personages than just President Clinton, however discreetly, will have to come to you in 2004.
Economic Differentiation. Outsiders can outflank establishment and alternative candidates on both their right and left sides. This is an insight that candidates in both major parties continue to overlook or ultilize. It is on the subject of economics where you can differentiate yourself from all of the other candidates for president and display your ability to lead with fresh ideas. You have already begun to do so with your arguments regarding government waste and infrastructure projects in urban areas. The government waste issue is an argument that some on the "right" are perceived as owning but you skillfully and articulately appropriate it in your book, Al On America. You defend your idea regarding "neighborhood infrastructure" on the grounds that the spending involved will result in a reduction of teenage and urban unemployment rates. Your presentation is magnificent, embracing the type of arguments that Republicans use to defend tax cuts. Only former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich has been articulate and skillful enough to equate spending programs and tax cuts on the grounds of their economic impact. If you were to follow his arguments and marry them with your own you could advocate the reduction of payroll and capital gains taxes just as comfortably as you now promote spending programs and infrastructure projects. Rev. Sharpton, your campaign has the unique opportunity and capacity to advance this idea as never before by promoting dynamic scoring and the use of capital budgeting to evaluate tax cuts and spending programs, not only in terms of their costs, but in terms of their potential economic stimulus effects. Including these two initiatives in your fiscal policy positions and linking them to the issues of anti-poverty and economic growth has never been done before in presidential politics. It would give you an almost impenetrable economic argument that in strictly political terms, would outflank Senator Joseph Lieberman on his right and Congressman Richard Gephardt on his left.
On the subject of monetary policy you can criticize Alan Greenspan's management of monetary policy. With the recent exception of Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., no Black political leader since Andrew Young, has been able to connect the United States' departure from the gold standard to increased global poverty. You would almost certainly be the only one of your opponents who would have the courage, intelligence and eloquence to criticize the Federal Reserve's traditional management of monetary policy and how it has negatively affected the entire economy - ensuring a structural level of unemployment - and in particular the Black economy - stifling the growth of its capital to labor ratio. If you could combine that critique of the Federal Reserve with your criticism of redlining practices and new arguments regarding how regulatory policies of the FDIC have crippled Black banks, you would have so many weapons in your arsenal that it almost would not be fair to the others.
And you must amplify your criticisms of the failed economic policies of this government aimed at urban America. Your critique of empowerment zones and economic development in Harlem Al On America is masterful and authoritative. You have to replicate it in every major city and rural area that is part of an empowerment zone and enterprise community in every state. This critique will indict several of your opponents and neutralize others. You also should include the most ariculate and detailed critique of how Black farmers in this country have been crippled by government policies, discrimination and the consequences of failed United States monetary policy. This will also pay a dividend for you in the South, as you protect and expand your support among Black voters.
Rev. Sharpton, my advice is that in your presentations you should include a litany of the failed Democratic Party polices of the past aimed at fighting poverty, as well as those of the present aimed at promoting economic growth, and how these policies reflect an establishment and old guard that has been out of touch with the reality in the streets of Black America. Don't allow your criticisms of President Bush's management of the economy to tip over into an endorsement of policies favored by the left that have failed to change the quality of life experienced by your base Black supporters. There are also available some persuasive and powerful arguments, if you ever need them, as to how racism undermined the war on poverty. Keep your powder dry.
Part of your political education should also include sit-downs with all of the major Black-owned banks, Black union leaders, Black publicly-traded firms and chamber of commerce organizations. Let them be your ad-hoc think tank. I can assure you that their data, anecdotes and research will serve you far better than the Brookings Institution, Center On Budget And Policy Priorities, and Progressive Policy Institute serve your opponents. Your economic policies for Black America should be a synthesis of what Black labor, farm and capital interests tell you, more than a re-packaging of the thinking of progressive partisan think tanks, interest groups and advisors. Remember your goal should be differentiation - being more liberal or more progressive doesn't accomplish this. Seeing the world through the eyes of Black farmers, laborers, bankers and companies does. The Black Enterprise magazine top 100 industrial companies, 100 automobile dealerships, 80 financial services firms and 20 advertising agencies (B.E. 100s) should mean more to you than the top 10 liberal or progressive interest groups and think tanks, where economics is concerned. They also can be important sources of campaign fund-raising support.
An example of how your differentiation on economic matters helps you where it matters most - with Black voters - is the issue of reparations. You are the first Black political candidate in a position to reap the harvest of electoral benefits of Black popular support for the issue. Sure, it is a risk but it is a calculated one, as part of a strategy which you already are carefully executing. You speak of reparations in the context of H.R. 40. From a cultural and political standpoint I raised my eyebrows when I saw you speak in this vain on Meet The Press last year. That is because I support H.R. 40 in the context of reparations. But I understand that you are crafting your support of the issue in terms that you believe are electorally-palatable. The litmus test for the success of your strategy is whether or not you can get all of the significant national and local leaders who support reparations to support your campaign. Can they support Sharpton-For-President in the context of reparations? The endorsement of Randall Robinson (who supported Ralph Nader and persuaded Mr.Nader to support "restitution" for slavery), author of The Debt, will be important as will that of Rep. John Conyers, the author HR 40, the National Coalition Of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA) and the support of the Nation Of Islam. Sure, in the popular culture, the mainstream media might have a field day with this. But your opponents will be very cautious in how they speak about the subject out of fear of alienating Black voters. They are on their heels with this and vulnerable to a frontal attack by you in the primaries. Push them on the issue if you have to. The reparations issue also comes with potential get-out-the-vote (GOTV)legwork and activist man and woman-power that you will need in your brutal primary fights, to shore up and mobilize Black support. You can also use the reparations issue as a litmus test by which you can separate the body of establishment Black organizations from their heads. For example, if Kweisi Mfume desires to personally support Senator John F. Kerry and lead the NAACP into that preference, then you could raise the issue of reparations as a way to expose the popular support for the issue among significant amounts of the NAACP body, juxtaposed to a cozy relationship between the groups chairman with a White liberal candidate who does not openly campaign on the issue as you do.
Rev. Sharpton, a final important point in this public e-letter, that I wish to raise, is my view that you have to decide how much you desire to register new voters while you simultaneously persuade traditional Democratic Party voters to cast ballots for you. I know the temptation and attraction to divide an existing pie is great. But I hope that you will resist it. If you allow your "outsider" campaign to fight for what already is, in terms of voter participation, then you are engaging in the most harmful form of zero-sum gain politics possible for a Black candidate. Don't marginalize your appeal to non-traditional voters just in order to curry favor with key segments of the Democratic Party political market. Don't allow your current tactic of Democrat as Independent or "alternative Democrat" overwhelm the more powerful strategy to be followed by leveraging your real market position of Independent as Democrat or "outsider." You have the power to register millions of new voters if you speak to the politically disenchanted and young of this country as an outsider or a Theodore Roosevelt-like "activist-prophet." I have a small suggestion that I think might help you make the inroads necessary to add volumes of new names to the electoral rolls. You could advance this initiative, if you think it worthy, by sitting down with Russell Simmons and working out your political differences. I thought about this when Russell Simmons and I recently spoke about you, and about his political worldview. Our conversation, combined with what both of you say about one another in your most recent respective books persuades me to believe that there is a sufficient healthy amount of respect, and agreement, in principle, that exists between the two of you to forge a powerful alliance in Campaign 2004. The key will be to do so as quickly as possible as Russell Simmons, as you know, tends to favor many of the establishment Democrats and has the history behind him of supporting the Gore-Lieberman ticket. He will be receiving considerable pressure to support Senator Lieberman and Rep. Richard Gephardt who has very strong music industry support. You will have to work aggressively this year in order to start a chain reaction that cajoles, persuades and challenges Russell to throw his support behind you early. It is a difficult proposition, I know (especially in how the two of you were opposite one another in the 2001 New York City mayoral race), but not out of the realm of possibility. Don't comfort yourself with the fact that you are very respected by several popular Black and Latino Hip-Hop artists. Their support and endorsement would be significant but it does not bring with it the polish, media savvy, and organizational efficiency that Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) commands. In addition, Reverend, your chapter on Hip-Hop, "Hip-Hop Generation" in Al On America is sound and an important feature to your worldview, still relatively undiscovered on the national stage. Emphasize it, test it and refine its salient points among members of the Hip-Hop community and I think you will open yourself up to persuading the members of the culture that you are best qualified to represent them in the 2004 election. And if you secure the support of a critical mass within the industry, community and generation, Russell Simmons will follow - he does not believe in fighting the power of culture. Just continue to be yourself, speak truth to power, arrange your powerful activist proteges and cultivate and deepen your relationships with Hip-Hop artists, and the Hip-Hop community's brilliant array of opinion leaders, activists, and intellectuals. Several hundred thousand new voters could be the least possible result if you play your cards right.
I offer all of the above - as a "note" of advice - with the deepest humility and respect for you.
I look forward to discussing these issues and many more with you in the not so distant future. And the viewers of BlackElectorate look forward to another chat session with you, whenever your busy schedule permits.
Sincerely - Your Brother,
Monday, February 24, 2003