THE biggest thing Jesse Jackson could do for the Democratic Party was done on Sunday last. On CBS television he declared that whoever is the nominee of the party at its convention this summer should have the right to pick his vice-presidential running mate.
True, he fudged it a bit by insisting that a strong runner-up ought to be consulted, but he stuck to the basic proposition that the nominee should be free to pick his own running mate.
This implies that if Michael Dukakis wins the Democratic Party's nomination (as now seems as certain as that George Bush will win the Republican nomination), then Governor Dukakis will be free to pick a white Southern running mate without risking a Jackson defection from the party.
Put the above alongside Richard Nixon's warning to the Bush camp to beware overconfidence. He suggested that if Mr. Dukakis picks either Sam Nunn of Georgia or Albert Gore of Tennessee as his running mate, the combination would not easily be defeated.
American political campaigns are like a kaleidoscope. One tap and the whole pattern can be transformed. After the Michigan primary, the Democrats acted as though Dracula had just walked in. They imagined that the Rev. Mr. Jackson would win or run a close second and then demand and get a place on the ticket, or tell his black constituents to sit out the election.
One television appearance by Jackson and Dracula dissolves. In his place is a Jackson who says that the vital thing this year is that the Democrats win. By implication, he puts party loyalty above his own ambitions. By implication, if the candidate is named Dukakis and if Dukakis picks a Nunn or Gore as his running mate, then Jesse Jackson will still back the ticket and do his utmost to see it win.
That is the best thing that could happen for the Democrats. They would have in Dukakis a candidate who, by his low-key brand of campaigning and his record of being a ``good administrator'' in Massachusetts, makes people feel comfortable. They could have in either Nunn or Gore a running mate who ought to be able to win back some of the old Confederacy to its ancient political loyalties. And they would have Jackson guaranteeing the bulk of the black vote - everywhere.
Obviously, there would be a suitable recognition of such munificent service to the party.
The talk in the back rooms is already about what use a Dukakis administration would make of the influence Jackson has gained by being able to attract white as well as black votes.
He could have almost any Cabinet job. A useful suggestion is that he be put in charge of all the anti-drug operations of the federal government. He is a powerful campaigner against drug abuse. No one knows whether he could be an effective administrator. He certainly could rouse enthusiasm for such a cause.
Richard Nixon is surely correct about the potential attractiveness of a Dukakis-Nunn or a Dukakis-Gore ticket backed by Jackson.
Americans have had nearly eight years now of an exciting President. Dukakis is certainly not exciting. He is deliberately not making great promises, not launching great crusades, not proposing to make drastic changes of any kind. All he offers is competent government.
That is not going to rouse enthusiasm on the hustings. But perhaps Dukakis has guessed correctly that after all the excitement of the Reagan years the American people might like to try quiet, nonconfrontational government for a change.
Perhaps our election this year will be a close-run thing after all.