The Real `Jackson Problem'

ALL eyes turn to Jesse Jackson.

Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. is arrested on drug charges. Barry is checked into a rehabilitation program. Washington's mayoral race is thrown into a tailspin.

All eyes turn to Jackson. Will Jesse run?

Jackson kindled speculation that he would challenge Barry when he changed his official residence to D.C. last July, only weeks before the qualification deadline for mayoral candidates.

But Jackson said he would not run. His ties with the D.C. mayor run deep, and even Barry's unrelieved record of scandal and corruption evidently could not persuade Jackson to cross his old friend.

Then Barry was arrested.

Many believe that Jackson should reconsider his earlier proclamation. He is, after all, Barry's logical successor. And if elected D.C. mayor, he could finally overcome a perennial criticism of his presidential bids--that he has no experience in elected office.

Many of Jackson's supporters would be delighted to see him run for mayor for this reason. But the people most excited about the prospect of Mayor Jackson are Democrats who want to get rid of Jackson.

Washington is a hellish city to govern. Guns, crack and poverty prevail. The city bureacracy is a quagmire. The district does not even have final authority over its own budget. The Washington Monthly, a national political journal, recently proclaimed the D.C. administration "the worst city government in America."

Democratic beacons assume that the troubles in Washington are so out of hand that any Washington mayor will come out looking like a failure. As D.C. mayor, Jackson would be shunted out of the national limelight and out of contention for the Democratic presidential nomination.

These Democrats secretly hope that Barry's arrest will rid them once and for all of two embarrassing problems--Barry and Jackson.

In 1992, they hope, the Jackson problem will be as good as gone.

THE "Jackson problem" was the dilemma faced by Democrats in 1988 when Jackson's constant presence and unexpected electoral success threatened Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' claim to the leadership of the party. It was the fear that alienating Jackson would alienate Black voters, the most loyal voting bloc in the Democratic coalition.

The "Jackson problem" was the public fear that Jackson would press on the temple walls and bring the party down around him.

Thus, those looking to 1992 want Jackson out of the picture, permanently.

It's a great plan. But it won't work.

It won't work because the Jackson problem won't go away even if Jackson decides to run for mayor. The "Jackson problem" is not one radical, provocative candidate preaching the agenda of the poor and oppressed and frightening away middle-class whites. The problem is that the poor and oppressed really exist. And they won't go away, even if Jackson does.

The Jackson problem is not so much a problem as an omen. Those who voted for Jackson we're voting for what Jackson was saying and what other Democrats were not. They were voting for his constant reminder to look inward, to look at our cities, our children, our education--to look and be appalled. They were voting because he was saying what needed to be said when no one else would.

So what's the problem? In a party that has made social welfare programs the bulwark of its agenda, Jackson's insistent criticism of Reagan's failure to promote social justice should be put under the spotlight, not hidden under a bushel.

George Bush was able to pretend to leadership on issues such as child care, education and the envronment simply because few Democrats were claiming otherwise.

This, too, is appalling.

You can think that Jackson was a monomaniac who refused to accept defeat gracefully. You can also believe that other Black leaders who have recently moved up the political ranks--such as newly-elected Governor L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia--have made Jackson's day of "outsider politics" a thing of the past.

But it would be short-sighted and destructive to the Democratic Party to believe that the "Jackson problem" was just that--a nuisance caused by one man.

JESSE Jackson may be the Democrats' best hope to define itself. He may never win the presidency, but he can keep the Democrats on their toes and remind them why they are Democrats.

The Democrats lost 1988 not because they were seen as similar to Jackson, but because they were not seen as different from George Bush. They deserved to lose.

The Democratic Party would do best to select a candidate who believes that Jackson's campaign was not a weakness, but a strength.

After all, a Democratic party without Jackson's agenda would be a party that looked all too much like the Republican party.

And one Republican party is plenty, thank you.