BILL CLINTON'S criticism of the Rainbow Coalition for including militant rap artist Sister Souljah has been denounced, especially by coalition sponsor Jesse Jackson, as a use of the "race card" to attract white votes and media attention, at Mr. Jackson's expense.
Governor Clinton's comments about Souljah - and the flap with Jackson, America's best-known black politician - have put the Democratic presidential contender back on the front pages. Clinton clearly is altering the chemistry of his party. But it is not yet clear to what effect.
Was challenging Jackson a "cheap shot," as the Boston Globe editorialized - one that sells out minority interests for majority votes and values, and, in an uglier reading, puts a black leader in his place?
Or is Clinton showing he is courageous, independent, and of "presidential stature," as the Wall Street Journal implied, by advocating racial harmony while challenging liberalism's perceived tolerance of uncivil rhetoric and behavior?
Answers are still to come. Clinton opened a minor drama that could harm him. Much depends on what he does now. Race in America is too serious to play games with. Most blacks would be politically disenfranchised were it not for the Democrats' championing of their cause. Clinton, who has angered the minority coalition in his party, must now show he can heal those divisions.
That isn't to say he can't question Souljah. Her infamous words, quoted in the Washington Post ("Why not have a week and kill white people?"), may have been misinterpreted, since she was trying to suggest how Los Angeles gang members felt. But her whole message is one of hostility and revenge.
Souljah isn't the issue, however. Clinton's ambushing of Jackson is. Clinton wants to show that, unlike in 1984 and 1988, the 1992 Democratic nominee won't do handsprings to please Jackson. In trying to expand the party, however, Clinton must not alienate its core or throw into doubt its identity as a party of civil rights. Taking on Jackson may erode the trust of minorities, even those who reject Souljah.
Jackson's favorable comments Tuesday on Clinton's economic ideas suggest reconciliation.
Democratic politics may require new tradeoffs in the 1990s. Clinton offers a serious plan to rebuild inner cities but demands tougher standards on values and rhetoric. This may be smart politics. But during a time of racial tension, how the politics are played is important. Assuming blacks have no other party to go to is divisive and embittering.
Clinton must show his politics aren't simply created media impressions. Having snubbed Jackson and miffed blacks, he must do more than recite a civil rights record, even if it is far better than George Bush's. He must show blacks he can be a president for all Americans. This requires more than just calculating what the most appealing words are. It is the genuine spirit of the thing that will speak to black Americans.