Pat Buchanan, who made credible runs for the GOP presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996, has long since ceased to be a force in the conservative movement. His appeals to racial resentment became a little too transparent, and his need for the spotlight drove him to say and do things that embarrassed his party. In recent years, Buchanan has been quoted and cited far more often by liberals, who cast him as a convenient if outdated caricature of the right, than by those on the right who used to support him.
Buchanan has a close counterpart on the left: Jesse Jackson. Three years younger than Buchanan, Jackson also ran credible campaigns for his party’s nomination. He too has been left behind by changing times, with his own appeals to racial resentment increasingly rejected by those who once turned to him for leadership and inspiration.
Over the last 15 to 20 years, Jackson has allowed himself to become the conservatives’ favorite black man, the political figure who too often parodies the causes he once effectively championed. His decline is his own damn fault, but like Buchanan, his need for the spotlight, to be seen as still relevant, drives him to say and do stupid things anyway. And out of respect for his past accomplishments, a lot of people on the left have been reluctant to call him on it.
Jackson’s most recent outburst — his statement last night in a public forum that “You can’t vote against health care and call yourself a black man” — will no doubt be seized upon by conservative critics, and understandably so. It’s an insulting and pretty stupid comment, an acid flashback to the ’60s that tries to make a policy issue a test of racial loyalty.
The target of Jackson’s attack, U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, a Democrat from Alabama, responded well:
“One of the reasons that I like and admire Rev. Jesse Jackson is that 21 years ago he inspired the idea that a black politician would not be judged simply as a black leader. The best way to honor Rev. Jackson’s legacy is to decline to engage in an argument with him that begins and ends with race.”
The transition from raging lion to aging lion can be difficult, and Jackson has not handled it with grace.