Tuesday, November 25, 2003

A defense of Al Sharpton 

No, I won't be defending Sharpton's past actions or his political views. Instead, I'm defending Sharpton's status as a candidate.

Many commentators have classified the Democratic presidential candidates into two categories: serious and non-serious. The former category consists of Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Bob Graham before he dropped out, while the latter consists of Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, and Sharpton. I would argue, however, that Sharpton belongs in the former category.

The basis for a two-tiered classification, it would seem, is that the first group of candidates each has a chance to actually win the nomination, while the second group does not. But this doesn't really make sense. From the moment Graham declared to the moment he dropped out, it was obvious to everyone that he had absolutely no chance of winning. And yet, he was still considered a serious candidate (for example, The New Republic's primary blog included Graham while ignoring Kucinich, Moseley Braun, and Sharpton). The same goes for Edwards and Lieberman right now (Disclosure: right now I'm leaning Lieberman). At this stage of the campaign season, even before one caucus or primary is held, it's equally obvious that those two have no chance of winning either. While I can even envision a scenario under which Kerry makes a big comeback and win, I can't do the same for Edwards or Lieberman. So why are they still considered serious candidates? At least Lieberman is leading or close to the top in some national polls and polls at less important primary states, even though we know national polls aren't a useful indication of support they'll get when it's actually time to vote. Edwards, as far as I remember, has never reached 5% in any national poll (unlike Sharpton).

So, given the above, why should Edwards be considered a serious candidate, but not Sharpton? Well, Edwards is a potential vice-presidential candidate, while Sharpton is not. But this still doesn't answer the question of why Edwards is considered a serious presidential candidate.

At this point, I'll point out two reasons why Sharpton has a s much a claim to being a serious candidate as Edwards and Lieberman. The first is that Sharpton might end up having a bigger impact than the other two. The Democratic Party adopted new rules this year on how delegates are apportioned. I don't have all the details down, but the basics is that anyone who gets 15% of the vote in a congressional district in a primary will get delegates for that district proportional to the number of votes received (for example, if my district gets 10 delegates, Dean gets 30%, Clark gets 20%, and no one else gets over 15%, Dean gets 6 delegates and Clark gets 4). According to some experts, the rule change could mean that no candidate has 50% of the delegates locked up, so the nomination might be decided at the national convention. I'm still doubtful that will happen, but if it does, Sharpton will have as much, if not more, power than Edwards or Lieberman at the convention, since he might have more delegates. Even though Sharpton doesn't have much overall support, his supporters are mostly concentrated in certain areas, which means that he can get delegates by meeting the 15% minimum in some districts. The supporters of Edwards and Lieberman, on the other hand, are more spread out, so even if they have more overall support than Sharpton, they might end up having fewer delegates.

Also, if Dean were the frontrunner at the convention but does not have enough delegates, it might be easier for him to bargain with Sharpton than with Edwards or Lieberman. Unlike Edwards, the price of Sharpton's delegates will not be the VP slot, and unlike with Lieberman, Dean might actually share some common ground with Sharpton on policy. It'll certainly be easier for Dean to promise Sharpton a commission on race or something than to promise Lieberman anything on free trade.

The second reason is that Sharpton is arguably more representative of Democrats than Edwards or Lieberman. Let's face it, unless some journalist produces pictures of all eight other candidates in bed at the same time with both live boys and dead girls, Lieberman and the Democratic Leadership Council are done in having any influence on the party. And despite paying more attention to the race than 98% of the population, I still can't tell you anything about what Edwards stand for. His three biggest positives so far as a candidate has been that he's from the south, he's good looking, and he's got lawyer friends with deep pockets. Not withstanding his votes, where does he really stand in the war on terror? Don't know. Free trade? No idea. Why did he vote against the Medicare bill? Damned if I know. I know what Sharpton stands for though, and even though I might not agree with him on very much, it's obvious that a significant number of Democrats do agree with him on many issues, even if they won't be voting for him.

So unless people are ready to eliminate Edwards and Lieberman as serious candidates, I think they should consider Sharpton as a serious candidate.
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