To hear Texas populist Jim Hightower and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. tell it, one of them should be running for president in 2004. Trouble is that each one says the other guy would be the best candidate.
Hightower and Jackson have been star speakers on the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour, which rolled into Chicago last weekend. The Chicago event -- the second on a national tour that began in Hightower's hometown of Austin -- drew 5,000 people for workshops of food, agriculture and democracy issues, speeches by the likes of Studs Terkel and Patch Adams, and music from artists such as Grammy Award winning singer Erykah Badu.
At this county fair of the left, where progressives played TrueMajority carnival games ("Knock-a-Nuke/Build-a-School") and downed Organic Valley toasted cheese sandwiches and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, talk of a two-years-off presidential race ranked surprisingly high on the agenda. For the most part, supporters of the 2000 campaigns of Democrat Al Gore and Green Ralph Nader put old arguments behind them and focused on the task of beating Republican George Bush in 2004. While Gore and the predictable crowd of Democratic insiders are already hustling for the next nomination, however, there was no consensus about the identity of the best standard bearer for progressives? There was talk about U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who has won high marks for his challenges to the Bush administration on military issues.
On the main stage, however, Jackson and Hightower amused the crowd by trading pitches for another pair of candidates.
After Hightower introduced Jackson, the Illinois congressman asked the crowd: "Wouldn't you like to see Jim Hightower on a presidential ticket?"
That remark drew loud cheers from a crowd in which "Jim Hightower -- Progressive for President" bumper stickers were circulating. The stickers are being distributed by a group that has set up a website (www.drafthightower.com), and that argues only Hightower -- a former Texas agriculture commissioner with a long history of battling the Bush family in the Lone Star state -- understands how to undo the popular president with a populist appeal. Their slogan: "Fight Texans With Texans!"
But Hightower turned the tables on Jackson. "Speaking of presidential tickets..." he told the crowd after the Chicago representative finished speaking. "I'd like to see Congressman Jackson on a presidential ticket. Who's for that?"
The hometown crowd cheered just as loud for Jackson, whose rousing speech updated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" address with proposals for Constitution amendments guaranteeing equal rights for women, access to health care and education, and -- in the light of the contested 2000 presidential election result -- the right to vote and have that vote counted.
For the record, both Hightower and Jackson say they are not running. But if the Rolling Thunder event in Chicago had been a nominating convention, the Hightower-Jackson ticket might well have won by acclamation. Or would that be the Jackson-Hightower ticket?