JESSE JACKSON is the ultimate outsider. Born an illegitimate child in pre-civil-rights South Carolina, he's not won elective office outside the District of Columbia and is seen by many as a globe-trotting grandstander, a free-lance conscience of America. Policy elites dismiss him; he petrifies Democratic Party leaders.
Yet Democrats can't write Mr. Jackson off. He bombed in New Hampshire in 1988, but then won 14 primaries, finished second in 36, and tallied 7 million votes.
Jackson's support is still worth millions of votes. Bill Clinton claimed blacks in Georgia; but only 16 percent voted. Jesse can turn the tide on indifference.
But it's not as power broker that Jackson is finally important. One may disagree with his enthusiasms, but his is a rare original voice in politics. He may not be on a front-runner's short list for vice president. But whoever is elected in '92 should find a way to let him serve. No one better articulates a broad moral vision of public life to so many - from inner-city youth to the middle class. In Jackson's America, no one is unimportant; nobody is left out.
He's called shrewd. Yet what politico isn't? What Jackson doesn't get credit for is his ability to translate basic public policy issues of race, economics, and class into a moral context. Politics without a transcendent moral dimension is dead, he says.
Americans are hungry for such messages. But rarely do leaders speak them - and then through speech writers. By contrast, Jesse doesn't know how else to talk.
Consider Jackson's evening this month at the JFK School of Government at Harvard - a school that enshrined technocratic "competence" as Michael Dukakis's rallying cry in 1988.
Introduced amid cheers a front-runner would envy, he asked the former governors of Mississippi and Louisiana, Ray Mabus and Buddy Roemer, in the audience, to stand. A voice said, "We're standing - in the back!" Not missing a beat Jackson said: "The governors of Mississippi and Louisiana standing in the back! Some might see that as retributive justice!" Grinning, he invited them up for a bear hug.
He begins: "The nation is in pain." Some 35 million are in poverty. Ten million are unemployed; 20 million underemployed. A quarter of major cities are in financial crises. The federal deficit is $366 billion. Children live in violence.
Many candidates say this as a strategy to "tap into voter anger." Jackson, however, has talked about these troubles all along. Nor is his answer a middle-class tax cut. The problem is "a lack of moral leadership and bold vision," and the answer is to consistently address that lack.
Candidates today toss moral issues into politics like so much salt and pepper in the rush to capture "the mainstream." Jackson insists on making justice and an ethic of caring a first priority. Whether it is family farms, race-baiting, corporate responsibility, foreign policy, automatic weapons, illiteracy, or behavior, Jackson insists that a moral dimension not just be recognized, but become a way to define issues.
"We must get past our love of bright lights and mindless materialism," he shouts. At a time of crisis on the way to Canaan "Moses went up to the mountain and came back with a 10-point urban policy plan." A "good Samaritan ethic" is needed. "There is no redemptive value in hate!" he growls. "Our character deficit is bigger than our budget deficit."
Jackson gives voice to blacks. But he also brings a dimension to public life that transcends race.