Endangered Species of the American South | The Nation


Endangered Species of the American South

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After the Oconee Democrats are finished confounding Lieberman's flack with sophisticated questions about Iraq, homeland security and Chinese imports, the breakfast breaks up and folks start to drift away. After counting up the morning's proceeds--$240, not bad--Duke rests her elbows on a folding table and sighs. "I feel inferior sometimes," she says. "I feel like people don't think I'm an important person, you know, because 'She's a Democrat.'"

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Bob Moser
Bob Moser, a Nation contributing writer, is editor of The Texas Observer and author of Blue Dixie: Awakening the South'...

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It wasn't always like that. While she taught high school, Duke's late husband, a druggist in town, served as county sheriff for sixteen years. Democratic, of course. "You've got to understand: Oconee County has always been Democratic." She corrects herself. "Was always Democratic. Till about 1980, the Reagan years. The religious right started controlling things then, and all of a sudden if you didn't espouse the Bible the whole time, you were immoral and you couldn't win." When South Carolina Democrats lost one of their last vestiges of power, with the defeat of Governor Jim Hodges in 2002, Duke saw it as one last nail in her party's coffin. "We've got to get connected with the national party again. But they just don't seem to care. It's going to take us an awful long time to come back up to where we're a serious threat, really a viable party."

How long? "I said fifty years after the last election," Duke says, studying her hands. She looks up, her blue eyes brightening for a moment. "But maybe it won't take that long. What comes around goes around. Doesn't it?"

Three days later, a short hop down the road in the prosperous city of Greenville, John Mellencamp's "Small Town" throbs through the late-afternoon swelter of a lakeside pavilion. A mostly white crowd of 150 rises and claps politely as the man who must win South Carolina comes beaming and hand-shaking down the center aisle.

"Not bad!" whispers Jenni Engebretsen, Senator Edwards's new press person in South Carolina. As Engebretsen smiles out at the audience half-filling the pavilion, more than 10,000 are massing in New York's Bryant Park to cheer Howard Dean, the blue-state Democrat. With Edwards's poll numbers stagnant and rumors flying about another "electable" Southerner, Gen. Wesley Clark, jumping into the race, optimism has become a precious commodity in the Edwards campaign.

Two summers ago, Seneca's native-son senator had all the makings of the next big thing, his national poll numbers shooting into double digits as People declared him America's sexiest politician and pundits declared him the second coming of Bill Clinton, sans bimbos--the lone Democrat whose Piedmont drawl and New South moderation could give George W. Bush a run for his money. After all, no Democrat from outside the South had occupied the White House since John F. Kennedy. Edwards had to be a winner. Or else.

But Edwards's campaign has sputtered since then. On his late-summer swing through his home turf, it's easy to see why. While his diagnoses of America's ills can be just as incisive as Dr. Dean's--"We've got two separate school systems now: one for the haves, and one for the have-nots"--Edwards's prescriptions are congenitally mild, and all too familiar. Like the Patients' Bill of Rights, a baby-step healthcare reform measure he shepherded through the Senate with John McCain and Ted Kennedy, Edwards's proposals are catchy but cautious, chipping away at big domestic quandaries while "restoring fiscal discipline" and lifting all boats with a balanced budget. It's the message that New South Democrats have been stuck on for the past two decades: jobs, schools, equality, frugality. And a fresh-faced messenger doesn't make it sound any less stale.

Today, as Democrats fan themselves furiously with Edwards's "Real Solutions for America" booklets, the other deficiency that has stuck the senator from North Carolina at around 10 percent in the South Carolina polls also looms. "Let me say a word about Iraq," Edwards says. And indeed, aside from noting that "this should be an international effort, not an American effort," a word is just about all the candidate has to say about Iraq--or any other foreign policy matter. The pundits began to tune out Edwards after he awkwardly fumbled foreign-policy questions on Meet the Press last May. Progressive Democrats, North and South, began to write him off after he voted for the Iraq war resolution.

A typical scene had unfolded the previous night, when Edwards spoke at a union hall in Charleston. "Why are we in Iraq?" an elderly man demanded to know. "We lied to get there--what kinds of lies are we gonna have to tell to get out?" Confronted with such raw evidence of Americans' growing frustration, Edwards's glittering self-confidence tends to give way to teeth-grinding hesitancy. But his problems go deeper than a lack of foreign-policy savvy. "He's much too moderate for 2004," says Don Aiesi, who teaches and studies politics at Greenville's Furman University. "People are so stressed, they're not buying moderation. Voters in South Carolina might be conservative on the whole, but not the ones who'll be voting in this primary. They want Bush the hell out of there, and they're reacting more ideologically in response to the Republicans. That moderate message--I don't know who's listening to it."

Edwards is in a mess of trouble, and his campaign's quandary goes straight to the heart of what's killing off the Democratic Party throughout the South--and just might kill off any hope the party has of unseating Bush next year.

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