Jonah Goldberg

It could have been Howard Dean's best week. It now looks like it was his worst.

On Nov. 1 Dean for at least the third time said that he wants "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." He'd said it at least twice before, according to The New York Times last winter.

But this time it got noticed and the Democratic Party's antibodies attacked Dean like he was a virus.

Three days later, during a debate sponsored by CNN and the cloyingly liberal youth group, Rock the Vote, Dean was asked to explain himself. How could blacks avoid concluding that the former Vermont governor is "insensitive" to racial issues if he wants Confederate flag-toting Southerners in his corner?

Amazingly, Dean wouldn't back down. He invoked Martin Luther King's hope that the sons of slaves and slave holders would one day come together. Trying to channel as much Bobby Kennedy as he could, Dean insisted that Republicans divide poor whites and poor blacks and he was sick of it. It was a pretty good answer. Not great, but a sign that Dean was serious about running a national presidential campaign.

But Dean was unprepared for the blowback. Al Sharpton zinged him, saying that King wanted blacks and whites to sit at the table of brotherhood (whatever that is) and "you can't bring the Confederate flag to the table of brotherhood." Things got testy, passions flared.

As they say at "youth"-oriented events, the candidates were "keeping it real." It was, already, the most entertaining moment of the debate so far - which, admittedly, is a bit like comparing it with the world's most satisfying rice cake.

John Edwards, rightly, scored points off Dean for his arrogance in assuming that the South needs a snooty New England liberal to teach it about racial justice. Sharpton and Edwards both devastated Dean with the charge that he was bigoted against Southerners, assuming they're all racists.

And that's when Dean blew it. He conceded the main thrust of Sharpton's and Edwards' attack. He admitted that the Confederate flag is in fact "a racist symbol" - an American swastika, in the words of Sharpton and others - but he wanted the support of those who embrace it anyway.

Even though he seems to think Southern racism is the GOP's fault, Dean's response put him to the racist-right of the entire Republican Party. The overwhelming majority of the flag's defenders say it stands for heritage and honor, not racism. Opponents say that's all bogus.

But no one in the GOP or anyone else outside of the extreme racist fringe ever says, "Oh sure, the Confederate flag stands for nothing but bigotry and racism, but we want to keep it anyway."

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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