Southern Exposure

Forget Dean’s flag flap. Do any of the Dems have a Southern strategy?


During the Democratic presidential contenders’ Tuesday appearance on Rock the Vote, former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, put his foot in his mouth with a poor characterization of southern white men.

While Democrats chided dean for characterizing white southerners as essentially white bigots with racist bumper stickers on their shit-kicker trucks, they shouldn’t have been surprised to hear Dean’s remark. Last February Dean used the same line at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting.

“I intend to talk about race during this election in the South because the Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us… White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us and not them, because their kids don’t have health insurance either and their kids need better schools, too.”

Last winter the D.N.C. crowd responded wildly to Dean’s direct approach to matters of race and class. But the tables have turned in the last nine months as Dean has risen to the top of the pack, and instead of applause, Dean was met with sharp reproach. Senator John Edwards, assuming his authority as a real-live southerner, reminded Dean that the South doesn’t need any more Yankees telling them how to run things. While the rest of the contenders lined up to chide Dean for his statement, Rev. Al Sharpton got the last word, reminding the Democratic front-runner that he needs to admit he made a mistake. “You are no bigot, but you appear to be too arrogant to say, ‘I’m wrong’ and go on,” Sharpton said.

While Dean and his contenders wrestled with the south during Rock the Vote, the gist of Dean’s message got lost in rhetoric. A Democrat has never been elected president without part of the south, it’s that simple — and Dean knows it. Since the Civil Rights Movement brought the black South into the folds of the Democratic Party, Republicans have rounded-up the votes of southern whites. Mississippi state rep. Erik Flemming gave a brief history lesson in his op-ed on the Black Commentator.

“Prior to the 1940s, Blacks were loyal to the G.O.P. because it was considered the party of Lincoln, the alleged ‘Great Emancipator.’ The combination of Franklin Roosevelt’s public policies and the deliberate targeted protests, led by grassroots leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, toward full political access, started the shift for Black Americans toward becoming almost monolithically Democrat.

This shift started to displace those white males who could not adapt to the times, and [George Wallace’s 1968 president campaign] was able to reach them. Nixon saw this demographic as a gold mine, and sought to aggressively cultivate them. The culmination did not come to fruition during Nixon’s political career, but the seeds had been planted. The initial beneficiary of this strategy was former President Ronald Reagan as he took Southern votes from former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat from the state of Georgia.

Since then, it has been a fight for Democrats to win the hearts and minds of Southern white males, who now felt at home with the G.O.P.’s subtle racist agenda. Under the guise of conservative family values, the Republicans have de-valued the need for hard-fought gains, such as affirmative action, and have escalated the level of fear by highlighting wedge issues like crime and religion. The current G.O.P. has used the same manipulation tactics engaged by slave owners in the 1700s and 1800s to convince poor whites under their employ to enact acts of atrocity toward Negro slaves and to later fight a war for ‘the noble Southern way of life.'”

And the moral of the story is: Democrats are still trying to figure out how to win back the white South. So far it has been assumed that John Edwards and Wesley Clark — the two southern candidates — would have the best shot with the brethren of their stomping ground. However, even with Dean’s bumbling attempts to get his message out, he’s on the right path. As David Johnson, a C.E.O. of an Atlanta based P.R. agency, points out, Democrats need to have a message that will reach across racial lines.

“While Republicans have met with limited success in appealing to minority voters, they continue their efforts. Democrats have made no efforts to reach out to white Southerners; rather, they seem to want to stereotype them as bigots.

Howard Dean was correct that Democrats do need a message that appeals to blacks and whites. With his record as governor of Vermont and his opposition to the war in Iraq, he is not the candidate, as his message is not one that can spell victory.

None of the current Democratic candidates has a message that can resonate with white and black voters alike. Until they realize that the problem is not the messenger but the message, they will continue to lose the South and be relegated to a minority party.”

And unfortunately for Dean, it looks like Johnson’s analysis is on the mark. The retiring Georgia Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller, wasn’t as judicial in his assessment of Dean’s southern appeal. “Dean knows as much about the South as a hog knows about Sunday,” Miller quipped. The Democrats who have succeeded in the South, namely Governor Mark Warner of Virginia, have struggled to cater to the interests of the 53 percent of white southerners who identify as Republican. Steve Jarding, a consultant to Warner’s 2001 campaign, told USA Today that Warner couldn’t ignore these voters. “It’s pretty basic stuff…I don’t see how you can run for any office in America and act as though a certain part of the population doesn’t matter,” he said.

It remains to be seen if Dean can convince southern whites that he represents their interests, but thus far all he’s done is alienate those he’s trying to attract.

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