Last week, Governor Howard Dean was the front-runner everyone wanted to attack. And he gave his opponents some good reasons. After all, his statement that he wanted to be “the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks” was wrong and stupid. Wrong because the confederate flag is a loathsome symbol, which reopens old wounds and perpetuates old hatreds. And stupid because his statement caricatured the South’s white working class.
But Dean was also right politically. As he said in reply to the Reverend Al Sharpton’s attack on him, the Democratic Party isn’t “going to win in this country anymore as Democrats if we don’t have a big tent.” It is high time for the Dems to engage in a serious discussion about how to win back working-class white voters in the South. As leading civil rights attorney Connie Rice wrote, in a nuanced defense of Dean, “Without a vision big enough to embrace southern white men–angry or not–this country cannot be diverted from its current path toward corporation-focused, downwardly mobile plutocracy and turned back toward people-focused, upwardly mobile democracy…We need to get beyond fighting over Confederate symbols and get to the critical re-founding of this country for its people.”
As our Washington correspondent John Nichols recently reported, polls show that rural Americans are even more concerned than urban voters about access to healthcare, education and job loss under Bush. And with the massive job loss in the South, the Dems need to pump up the populist economic volume to counter the cynical and divisive tactics of the Southern Republican right. The bottom-line should be clear: A populist Democratic nominee fighting the next election on behalf of jobs, family farms, healthcare and education could give George “Herbert Hoover” Bush a real race in a region that the GOP now takes for granted. If the Administration’s economic policies continue to destroy the industrial base of the region, the South need not be solid for Bush in 2004.
Then there was the attack on Dean by the other Democratic candidates for his decision to opt out of the presidential public financing system. Progressive candidate Dennis Kucinich, for example, attacked the former Vermont Governor for dealing a serious blow to efforts to keep money from dominating politics.