NO ONE ACCUSED Howard Dean of whistling Dixie in February when he tried to appeal to Southern white men or to Southern black people about Southern white men.
"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."
Dean said this before a group of African-Americans at a hamburger joint in Spartanburg, S.C. A Newsday story said, "This blunt appeal to a commonality of racial interests won the moment and a burst of applause."
That same month in Washington at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting, Dean said, "I intend to talk about race during this election in the South because the Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us. . . . White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us and not them, because their kids don't have health insurance either and their kids need better schools, too."
That brought a standing ovation.
That makes very curious the catcalls nine months later from Dean's rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. Last Saturday, Dean said in the Des Moines Register, "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats."
As if this was the first time they heard it, the other candidates drew crossbows. John Kerry said it was "craven." Joseph Lieberman said it was "reckless." Dick Gephardt said "I will be the candidate for guys with American flags."
At this week's Rock the Vote forum in Boston, John Edwards told Dean, "The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do." Al Sharpton said Dean sounded "more like Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson." Sharpton also said, "Maynard Jackson said that the Confederate flag is America's swastika. . . . I don't think you're a bigot, but I think that is insensitive."
That last dig showed how fast Sharpton and the Democratic candidates get lost without a compass. Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's first African-American mayor who died this summer, gave Dean some of the loudest applause at the DNC meeting.
"Dean blew the roof off today," Jackson said. "There was no mealy-mouth wishy-washiness about it. It was very gutsy."
Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for the 2000 presidential campaign of Al Gore and Lieberman, and no mealy-mouth herself, said Dean's words were "the medicine to cure my depression." Referring to the Democrats' fear of squarely taking on Bush's policies, Brazile, despite her neutrality, said, "Anybody who gets us off the floor and out of the fetal position, I'm for."
The Democrats should stop trying to mop the floor with Dean's Confederate flag and grab their opportunity before it is lost. There is a health care crisis that cuts across race. There is a public education crisis that cuts across race. There is a jobless economic "recovery" that cuts across race. The Republicans have successfully distracted huge swaths of white males from those problems, exploiting various codes that blame everyone except straight white men for America's problems.
In the Deep South, ties to the Confederacy remain a powerful political code. In 2001, white voters in Mississippi voted overwhelmingly to retain the current flag, which includes the Confederate symbol, over the wishes of African-American voters who wanted a new flag. This week, former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour won the Mississippi governor's race after defiantly refusing to disavow the use of his photo by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group tied to the old segregationist white citizens councils. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney came to Mississippi to campaign for Barbour.
While Barbour played to the code, Dean was trying to crack it. Some political analysts talk as if the white South is locked up forever for the Republicans. Had the Democrats won just one other state in 2000, Bush would not be in the White House. Clinton had the economic message to win several Southern states in both 1992 and 1996.
Dean has since apologized for invoking Confederate imagery. He should drop the Confederate line because it risks its own distraction, narrowly stereotyping Southern white males when too many white men all across America, broadly stereotyped as "NASCAR dads," have been persuaded to vote for codes against their best economic interests.
Dean should not drop the cause. The real apology should come from the other Democratic candidates for not joining it. Dean was the first to get off the floor to say the Democrats cannot win unless they tell white men how code politics is killing them in the pocketbook. Back in February, Maynard Jackson said Dean's bluntness "stole the show." The other candidates are merely jealous that Dean stole the issue of white men while they are still talking their way out of the fetal position.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is email@example.com.