Jewish World Review Nov. 6, 2003 / 11 Mar-Cheshvan 5764
Dean waves wrong flag, Dems see red
In politics, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards has said, your enemies can't hurt you but your friends will kill you. So true, Madam Governor. Just look at how presidential candidate Howard Dean's fellow Democrats are raking him over the hot coals for his politically incorrect flag waving.
"I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," the former Vermont governor was quoted as saying in the Des Moines Register. "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats."
True enough. You build political support by addition, not subtraction.
But on his way to that common-sense conclusion, Dean rhetorically brought up a symbol that seasoned politicians have found to be political nitroglycerin for both parties. Dean's challengers saw their opportunity to pile on and they took advantage of it.
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri charged Dean with pandering to people "who disagree with us on bedrock Democratic values like civil rights."
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts accused Dean of trying to "pander to lovers of the Confederate flag" and the National Rifle Association.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards called Dean's remark "offensive" to "Southerners who drive trucks." Now there's a constituency you certainly don't want to alienate.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who earlier called Dean a come-lately to supporting affirmative action, reacted like a man who could smell the political red meat a cookin'.
"I'm not saying Dean is a bigot," Sharpton told me in a telephone interview as he prepared for Tuesday night's Democratic debate in Boston. "I like Dean."
"But I'm saying that he said something that was deeply insensitive."
"In South Carolina people have been struggling for several years to take the Confederate flag off the Statehouse."
Right. South Carolina also was the scene of the clash between Republicans George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary. A similar battle is shaping up this winter when that state's primary is set to be the first important Southern contest. With African-Americans making up about half of South Carolina's Democratic voters, it also offers Sharpton his first big chance to pick up Democratic convention delegates.
I asked Sharpton about Dean's clarifying statement. Dean explains that he only wants "people with Confederate flags on their trucks to put down those flags and vote Democratic because the need for quality health care, jobs and a good education knows no racial boundaries."
Doesn't Sharpton agree that Democrats should pursue such voters? "I think we have to go after them but not by sympathizing with Confederates," he said. "We need to be sensitive. If you want to go after poor whites, don't send a message to blacks that you don't care about what the Confederate flag stands for."
Maybe so, but Sharpton's persistent appeals to racial solidarity are a double-edged sword for his party too.
Whether or not he realizes it, Dean is following the Page Principle of Racial Politics. It goes like this: When race is the issue in a presidential race, Democrats lose; when class is the issue, Democrats win.
Low-income whites, for example, often have voted against their own economic interests in the name of racial solidarity, particularly in the states of the old Confederacy.
Slavery and later Jim Crow laws were grounded in a culture that encouraged poor whites to put up with low earnings and sad living conditions in return for the privilege of being superior to non-whites. Modern politics plays the old game with new code words like "welfare queens" and "racial quotas" that cast common concerns as issues of "us" versus "them." That's politics. With that in mind, it seems self-destructive for Democrats to bring the rebel flag back as a political issue.
Sharpton says he is doing the Democrats a favor. Like the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, Sharpton says he could help boost registration and turnout of black voters. Quite true. He could also turn out an even larger backlash against the Dems among white voters.
Bill Clinton, an artistic master of cross-racial empathy, drew a white-male turnout in 1992 that was the largest of any Democratic presidential candidate since the 1960s. He knew how to finesse his way around the racial minefields. Today's Democratic candidates are still learning.
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