Will Sanders Follow Jackson's '88 Convention Script?

Will Sanders Follow Jackson's '88 Convention Script?
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Bernie Sanders’ vow to “fight on” to the Democratic National Convention next month in Philadelphia despite his apparent loss of the presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton is not “unprecedented,” a word we in the media use too much.

Nearly 30 years ago, Jesse Jackson campaigned all the way to the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta even though he had mathematically lost the nomination fight to then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis more than a month earlier. Jackson called his marathon crusade the “endless campaign” and used it to squeeze concessions from Dukakis that gave the civil rights leader, his issues and his followers a larger role in the Democratic nominee’s fall campaign.

Dukakis lost that race to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, despite Jackson’s strong support.

Sanders and Jackson are kindred spirits and go way back in their friendship. Sanders, then mayor of Burlington, Vt., was one of the few white elected officials to endorse Jackson for president, first in in 1984 and again in 1988.

 “We are going to give our support to a candidate for president who has done more than any other candidate in living memory to bring together the disenfranchised, the hungry, the poor, the workers who are being thrown out of their decent-paying jobs and the farmers who are being thrown off of their lands,” Sanders said when he endorsed Jackson in 1988.

Sound familiar?  

Jackson, recalling those days, had high praise for Sanders last month in a Huffington Post podcast, “Candidate Confessional.”

“In many ways, Bernie is running the Jackson campaign,” Jackson said, “with much more money and today’s technology and much more coverage in so many ways. As we sought to broaden the base, many whites would support us but were afraid to face other whites — these cultural walls and fears. Bernie supported us in ’84 and ’88.”

And now Sanders is apparently stealing a page from the Jackson playbook to gain more leverage for his issues. Just as Jackson pushed Dukakis to embrace his priorities in 1988, Sanders is seeking support from Clinton for higher taxes on the wealthy, reductions in defense spending, a clamp-down on Wall Street, campaign funding limits, expansion of safety-net programs such as Social Security, and free college education.

“We are going to fight hard to win the [June 14] primary in Washington, D.C., and then we take our fight for social, economic, racial and environmental justice to Philadelphia,” Sanders told supporters Tuesday night at a spirited rally in Santa Monica. Calif.

Just as many are asking now about Sanders, the big question in 1988 was “What does Jesses want?”  Much of the speculation was that he wanted to be Dukakis’ running mate. Jackson played coy on that, never saying he wanted it, but arguing that he had earned the right to be considered for the No. 2 spot. He later signaled that he would accept it, if offered.

Dukakis feared that a Dukakis-Jackson ticket would be too liberal, and maybe too radical for the times. But not wanting to appear intimidated by Jackson, he ended that speculation the week before the convention by naming then-Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, a moderate, to be his running mate. Jackson was miffed that he was not told in advance and had to learn of the selection through news reports.

Jackson then irritated Dukakis by leading a bus caravan some 700 miles from Chicago to the convention, making campaign stops along the way. It stole media attention away from the nominee and made the split between the two the lead story of the pre-convention weekend.

“We want inclusion in the party at every level – inclusion in policymaking, inclusion in priorities and inclusion in sharing responsibility,” Jackson said at a stop in Indianapolis. “Those are reasonable expectations.”

Forced to seek peace, Dukakis met privately with Jackson in Atlanta on the Monday morning of the convention’s opening day. The two emerged to announce that they had come to an agreement. Dukakis did not make any major policy concessions to Jackson, but gave the civil rights leader a high-profile role in the fall campaign, his own airplane and agreed to hire many of Jackson’s top election workers onto his and the Democratic National Committee staffs.

With the Dukakis campaign footing the bill, Jackson energetically barnstormed the country that fall on behalf of his party’s nominee. He kicked it off with a unifying speech at the convention just one day after the peace accord was reached.

“Tonight I salute Gov. Michael Dukakis. He ran a well-managed, dignified campaign,” Jackson said, “I have watched a good mind, fast at work, with steel nerves, guiding his campaign out of the crowded field without appeal to the worst in us. I have watched his perspective grow as his environment expanded.”

Returning to 2016, the big question is: Will Clinton, like Dukakis, make peace with Sanders, or will Bernie and his supporters go away mad? The key to the election’s outcome could lie in the answer.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter@benedettopress.

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