Confederacy of dunces

Howard Dean's Democratic rivals are willfully misrepresenting the candidate's reference to the Stars and Bars -- and writing off the pickup-truck vote.

Published November 4, 2003 8:31PM (EST)

Does anyone really believe that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was borrowing a playbook from the GOP and telegraphing coded support for Southern racism when he said, in an interview last week, "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks"? Dean explained his unorthodox approach this way: "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross section of Democrats."

I'd add this: Democrats can't beat Bush unless they abandon their elitist approach to working-class cultural conservatives, especially in the South -- and the opportunistic, preachy pile-on by Dean's Democratic opponents after his remarks won't help.

"It is simply unconscionable for Howard Dean to embrace the most racially divisive symbol in America. I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA," Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry huffed. Dick Gephardt rivaled Kerry in prissiness: "I don't want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," the Missouri congressman said. "I will win the Democratic nomination because I will be the candidate for the guys with American flags in their pickup trucks."

Can Kerry possibly think Dean "embraced" the Confederate flag with his statement? Of course not. So Kerry's huffy reaction makes him look dishonest, not courageous. And sure, Gephardt is entitled to pass up the support of anyone he chooses, but his self-righteous Dean bashing just confirms the electorate's suspicions that Democrats are elitists who prefer ideological purity to mass appeal when casting their net for supporters.

Certainly, the Confederate flag is a divisive symbol, and certain Republican politicians have in fact embraced it while campaigning in the South. In the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, both George W. Bush and John McCain refused to criticize the Sons of Confederate Veterans' campaign to restore the flag to the top of the statehouse (Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges had moved it), though McCain later expressed regret for his position. And in the 2002 midterm elections, as Sean Wilentz showed last year, the GOP defeated Hodges, along with Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, with a campaign that quietly pandered to flag backers while avoiding outright racist appeals. Post-election surveys showed that rural whites in both states crossed over to vote Republican, and that the flag controversy was a crucial reason why.

Was Dean's statement in that same tradition? Clearly it was not. For one thing, such appeals by Republicans are usually confined to the South -- and ironically, they're normally a little less open than Dean's. Although it hasn't gotten much attention until now, Dean has made his flag remarks before. Last February, he told a winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington: "I intend to talk about race during this election in the South. The Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us, and I'm going to bring us together. Because you know what? White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools, too."

After his remarks last week drew criticism, Dean released a statement saying: "I want people with Confederate flags on their trucks to put down those flags and vote Democratic -- because the need for quality healthcare, jobs and a good education knows no racial boundaries."

Dean put his finger on something crucial that explains the Democrats' lack of nationwide mass appeal: While they correctly addressed the problems of racism from the 1960s on, they lost sight of the issues of class, which don't always dovetail with race. Defending his remarks yesterday in Iowa, Dean explained: "What Franklin Roosevelt did was to get the Southern white working class to vote with the Southern African-American working class," said Dean, about the former Democratic president. "The only time we're ever going to make progress in this country is when black people and white people and brown people work together and put race aside." I happen to believe that, too. It's disturbing if other candidates don't.

If there was any political subtext or hidden calculation behind Dean's remarks -- and I have no evidence there was -- my guess is that he knew his candor would trigger his opponents' inner scolds. And then, while they scrambled to proclaim their political correctness, Dean would once again look like the plain-talking guy who takes risks, who says what's on his mind, who leads and doesn't merely follow. Whether Dean planned it or not, his rivals -- predictably -- took the bait.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Democratic Party Howard Dean