The Washington Times

When top Democratic campaign operative Donna Brazile grants an interview to The Washington Times telling Democrats they had better watch how they handle their attacks on presidential aspirant Al Sharpton lest the party run the risk of losing its hold on the black vote, I think the metaphor that can fairly be applied is “going nuclear.” What is going on?

Something like the revenge of Sister Souljah, I think. In June of 1992, well after he had locked up the Democratic presidential nomination, Bill Clinton took to a podium to denounce the work of the militant African-American rapper, Sister Souljah. Mr. Clinton, in a move designed as an attention-getting appeal to mainstream voters by distancing him from the radical wing of the Democratic Party, said, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

Most mainstream white Democrats are at least somewhat appalled by the Rev. Al Sharpton. For some, this is a view formed at the time Mr. Sharpton first burst onto the national stage in 1987, as an adviser to a black teen-ager named Tawana Brawley who claimed, in what a grand jury subsequently determined was a hoax, that she had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by six New York law-enforcement officials. For others, it is his radical racial politics more generally. But for most white Democrats, it is at least this: fear that a Democratic Party too closely associated with Al Sharpton is a Democratic Party that has no chance of winning a national election.

The problem – and based on Miss Brazile’s comments to The Times, there is no doubt it’s a serious problem – is that African-Americans don’t necessarily share such a negative view of Mr. Sharpton, and, on the contrary, many strongly support him. This strain of American opinion is complicated and frankly underexplored in opinion polling. But I am willing to take a chance on a few observations.

First of all, sociologists will tell you that there is a notably greater sense of solidarity among blacks than among whites, or for that matter among most other minority groups. This has a twofold effect. First, it creates a reservoir of goodwill, a willingness to give someone the benefit of the doubt [especially when an attack is coming from someone outside the group]. Second, it finds someone’s essential goodness apart from the particularity of what he or she says or does. Even if one has said or done something bad, one has not thereby forfeited one’s solidarity claims. A negative judgment about a particular act doesn’t necessarily translate into an overall negative judgment. Hate the sin, love the sinner.

In this sense, Mr. Sharpton may be a bit much for some black people in some respects, but he gets credit for being a tireless advocate for poor people in general and disadvantaged blacks in particular. He is, in his way, all about solidarity among African-Americans, even if he is a polarizing figure from the point of view of most of white America.

The problem, as Miss Brazile describes it, is that Mr. Sharpton has been getting the Sister Souljah treatment from a number of his fellow Democrats. They have been complaining, mostly off the record, about the political danger Mr. Sharpton exposes them to. The liberal American Prospect referred to the “nightmarish complications” that could follow for the eventual nominee if Mr. Sharpton does well in even a small number of primaries.

Critics need to “take a deep breath and exhale,” Miss Brazile told Donald Lambro of The Times. Mr. Sharpton’s opponents should “stop beating him up . . . Debate him, don’t disown him,” she said. “Don’t ignore him, don’t slight him, don’t treat him like a second-class candidate, because it will fuel his fire, and his spirit will soar even larger.”

“My message to the Democrats is not to take blacks for granted,” she said. The message is all the more pointed for its delivery via the conservative newspaper in Washington.

What Mr. Clinton understood in the Sister Souljah episode was that lots of African-Americans have a problem with militant rap. It was, I think, the same insight that led him to sign a bill ending the welfare entitlement notwithstanding the united opposition of the major black organizations: Many African-Americans thought permanent welfare eligibility was hurting their communities.

The problem is that the act of disowning Mr. Sharpton may have an appeal for white voters, but it is likely only to increase his standing among blacks, who are not predisposed to see Mr. Sharpton’s candidacy as a bad thing, even though they know he has no chance of winning. And their response to an effort to exclude him will in many cases take the form of solidarity.

Miss Brazile is a partisan Democrat. She won’t be voting Republican any time soon, and I doubt she expects many blacks will. But handling Mr. Sharpton is a particularly tough challenge for Democrats this year and next; her review of the early efforts is in, and it is not favorable.