The Way Down South
There was one hopeful sign of a wake-up call after 2004, when Howard Dean was elected chair of the Democratic National Committee, declaring in his acceptance speech, "People will vote for Democrats in Texas, in Utah, in West Virginia if we knock on their doors." Dean's election had been assured by enthusiastic support from Southern and Western delegates--folks who were not supposed to embrace an antiwar Yankee. But alone among Democratic leaders, Dean had shown some understanding of the price his party was paying for insulting and neglecting red America--and of the best remedy.
Stating his intention of competing for the votes of "guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks" in November 2003, Dean set off howls of protest among party leaders and his rivals for the presidential nomination, who said he was simultaneously stereotyping white Southerners and offending blacks. But few of the complaints originated in Dixie. As they "stand on their soapboxes to castigate Dr. Dean's remarks," wrote the Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the Charleston NAACP, "Democratic candidates and party leadership should bear in mind that black voters think for themselves." The previous February at a hamburger stand in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Dean had been applauded by black listeners when he said, "You know all those white guys riding around with Confederate flags in the back of their pickup trucks? Well, their kids don't have health insurance either." That same month, Dean had told a DNC meeting that white folks "who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us." Maynard Jackson praised his words as "very gutsy," while New Orleans native Donna Brazile called Dean's comments "the medicine to cure my depression."
Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., whose father's 1988 presidential campaign had some success building a biracial coalition around economic populism in the South and Midwest, was one of several black Congressional leaders to endorse Dean soon after the "flag flap" erupted. Jackson praised Dean for moving past the Democrats' "stereotypical and condescending approach of appealing to whites in the South with a 'balanced ticket' and 'social conservatism.' Dean dares a new approach--to join whites and blacks around a common economic agenda of good schools and healthcare."
But Dean's approach--both in his campaign and with his new "fifty-state strategy" for the DNC--was hardly a hit with white national party leaders, who complained bitterly about the expense of hiring Democratic organizers, in the words of ex-Clinton adviser Paul Begala, to "wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose." In the 2006 midterms, national Democratic campaign committees shunned the fifty-state approach and backed only a handful of Democrats in the South. The chosen Southerners fit the "Republican Lite" mold to a T: social conservatives who emphasized "fiscal responsibility" and steered clear of calling for troop withdrawals in Iraq. The ideal Southern campaign, agreed Begala and his ilk, was Harold Ford Jr.'s lavishly financed Senate bid in Tennessee. Aiming to "out-Republican" his opponent, Ford spent the campaign bashing "illegals," waving the flag, ridiculing the very notion of gay marriage and calling up a quote from the Bible to address every issue.
Ford's loss was widely chalked up to race-baiting attack ads run by the Republican National Committee. But his defeat--like those of all but one of the Democrats' chosen candidates in the South last year--can also be viewed as a lesson in the limitations of Clintonian compromise. So can the results from the border South state of Kentucky, where self-described "liberal" John Yarmuth--whose pleas for national funds fell on deaf ears--pulled off a startling upset in the state's 3rd Congressional District by running a campaign that was the antithesis of Ford's. "The mistake Democrats have made here over the years is that they never provided a sharp contrast," says Yarmuth, who bested five-term Republican incumbent Anne Northup. "I said from day one, 'Anne and I are 180 degrees apart. If she believes something, I don't.' I was that clear. I wanted the voters to have a real choice and see where they'd go." They went with the frank-talking, antiwar, labor-loving candidate his own party considered too "liberal" to win. Meanwhile, the two party-funded challengers in Kentucky, both staunch social conservatives aiming to join the Blue Dog Coalition in Congress, got their clocks cleaned. "There's a Beltway mentality that succumbs too much to conventional punditry," says Yarmuth. "The voters are way ahead of the Democrats and way ahead of Washington."
That was true in North Carolina, too, where blue-collar populist Larry Kissell challenged four-term incumbent Robin Hayes, the sixth-richest person in Congress. A mill worker turned high school teacher, Kissell ran the ultimate shoestring, grassroots campaign; in early October, when his GOP opponent reported $1.1 million cash on hand, Kissell trumpeted his campaign's balance: $89.94. "I'm sure my bank account looks a lot more like a typical 8th District voter than Hayes's," he said. This was making a virtue of necessity: Kissell's persistent pleas for help from the DCCC were ignored, even as the party spent more than $1 million on the nearby campaign of Christian conservative ex-quarterback Heath Shuler, who'd been personally recruited to run by DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel. Kissell had to make do with some backing from the netroots and John Edwards. Hopelessly outspent, he lost by 329 votes.
Democrats who bucked the script and offered Southerners a frank, unqualified brand of economic populism in 2006 were more successful than the Clinton clones--none more than Jim Webb, the Republican turned Democrat who unseated Senator George Allen in Virginia. Before Allen's infamous "macaca moment," Webb had also been shunned by the national party as a hopeless case. While antiwar sentiment boosted his chances, especially in the increasingly "blue" burbs of northern Virginia, Webb's campaign was fired by an old-fashioned pocketbook populism similar to the messages that won for Yarmuth, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jon Tester in Montana and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Webb believes a strong, clear economic message is the only way for Democrats to reconnect with working-class and middle-class folks who started voting Republican in the 1980s. "The natural base of the Democratic Party looked at both parties and saw they had both been taken over by elites," Webb told me in September. "They could see they weren't going to get helped on economic issues. The one place they thought they could make a difference was on these divisive social issues manipulated by the Republicans. But now they know that's not going to happen. If they can be reached out to with respect, and in terms of fundamental fairness, I think a lot of them will come back."
The populist resurgence of 2006 suggests a way past the false dilemma Democrats have long believed they faced: Either ditch the South, or try to compete there with a "me too" message. Rather than attempt to "neutralize" the GOP Southern strategy by mimicking it, Webb, Yarmuth and McCaskill--all strongly prochoice, antiwar and outspokenly opposed to wedge issues like anti-gay marriage initiatives and restrictions on stem-cell research--reasserted economic fairness as the central "moral" issue of politics. That will be key not only to attracting moderate evangelicals increasingly fed up with the narrowness and corruption of Republican "values" but also to firing up black voters in the South, who take a back seat to no one as strong Bible believers. A fresh, progressive "moral populism" could also help sway a lasting majority of Hispanics into the Democratic fold. "It's a toss-up at this point whether people will go Democratic or Republican," says former State Senator Sam Zamarripa of Georgia, a leading advocate for the South's booming immigrant population. "On the one side, a lot of people are going evangelical; but a lot are also seeing that the politics that prevail in Republican America are not working to their benefit."
An emphasis on the "value" of economic fairness (along with other Democratic issues popular with moderate evangelicals, including environmental stewardship) could help bridge those moral and pragmatic concerns--and help Democrats forge a new progressive coalition that cuts through racial divisions. "The greatest gap in the Democratic 'narrative,'" Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne recently wrote in The American Prospect, "is a plausible account of how moral and economic concerns interact. That's the real 'values' nexus."