JESSE Jackson told us over lunch that recent election results were an important sign of black progress in America. He is right, but he also seemed to be seeing in the outcome further reinforcement for his presidential aspirations. Many democratic leaders wouldn't agree. Indeed, some democratic chieftains now are convinced that a loner and maverick like Mr. Jackson will never attract enough white support to win the presidency. They think that ``nonthreatening'' blacks, like L. Douglas Wilder and David Dinkins, would be more likely to help and not hurt a presidential ticket.
But even party faithfuls like Mr. Wilder and Mr. Dinkins caused substantial defections among white democrats in Virginia and New York City - enough to cast doubts as to whether the national electorate is ready for a black president or vice president.
Racial bias is abating. This was clear in the five major contests won by blacks in which black voters were the minority - New Haven, Conn., Durham, N.C., Seattle, New York, and Virginia. That's the good news.
But the bad news, particularly for the democrats, is that Jesse Jackson doesn't see these election results as principally a triumph for black candidates who stay within the mainstream of party politics and who, personally, don't cause too many waves.
Jackson views these victories as extensions of his own accomplishments. He attracted impressive white support in the democratic primaries of 1988, but has never been in a general election. White liberals in the New York state primary (mainly the Jewish voters) turned their backs on Jackson.
Jackson should not overlook the rejection he received from both Wilder and Dinkins during their recent campaigns. He knows that it was the judgment of these candidates that a show of association with Jackson would be a negative among many voters.
Late on election night, when Dinkins' victory had become clear, he did refer favorably to Jackson as a ``healer.'' This caused many Jewish voters to say that they regretted having voted for Dinkins.
Many democratic leaders see Jackson, despite his successes in primaries, as more of a polarizer than a healer. They also think that Jackson was divisive among democrats in the last election; the Jackson people, of course, felt that it was Michael Dukakis who destroyed this unity by failing to campaign side-by-side with Jackson.
Jackson is a gifted speaker and a superb debater. Further, there is no other potential democratic presidential candidate who is so well known among the American people. He has shown an ability to win primaries and rack up delegates. Last time, only Dukakis exceeded Jackson in delegates, a fact that persuaded Jackson and his followers that he was entitled to the No. 2 spot on the ballot.
Jackson made it clear to our Monitor press luncheon that he felt that the extension and expansion of his rainbow coalition - which he saw as the result of the recent elections - would make it most difficult for the party to ``lock out'' a black from the democratic ticket. He didn't mention himself. But he clearly was referring to what happened last time when Dukakis bypassed him.
That Jackson seems to be running for President once again (he told us that becoming Washington D.C. mayor was ``unappealing to him'') is the worry of the democratic leaders.
They feel that now might be right for a mainstream black to grace the presidential ticket - someone like a Congressman Bill Gray. But they see in Jackson only further party division and increased voter polarization.
Polarization remains a political reality.
In the last presidential election, blacks voted overwhelmingly for Dukakis; the whites voted for Bush. The widest variation came in the South, where the GOP candidate won 68 percent of the white vote and only 12 percent of the black vote.
Jackson could once again intensify that polarization. That's what party leaders were hoping they wouldn't have to deal with in 1992.