Dean's Southern strategy

Posted: Nov 07, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Howard Dean wants the white trash vote. That's not exactly what he said, but that's clearly what he meant when he said he wanted the votes of "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.'' It was a beautiful moment. It produced at the very next Democratic debate the perfect liberal storm: a comedy of class snobbery, regional condescension and political correctness, with a touch of race-baiting thrown in for good measure.

It began with a student at the CNN debate on Tuesday declaring himself offended by Dean's remark. It included the ever-reliable Al Sharpton charging Dean with cuddling up to Stonewall Jackson. It was highlighted by Dean saying, in essence, that he is not a Confederate -- indeed, it seemed, that every candidate was ready to declare undying allegiance to Lincoln and the Union -- but that if the Democratic Party wanted to compete it would have to go after poor Southern whites.

Then, the loveliest touch of them all. Constrained by the ruling Democratic dogma that everyone, even your rebel-yelling racist redneck, is a victim, Dean absolved these yahoos of responsibility by explaining that responsibility really lies with those nasty Republicans who taught them their racism: "I think there are (a) lot of poor people who fly that flag because the Republicans have been dividing us by race since 1968 with their Southern race strategy.''

And to show how ecumenical is his belief in outreach, he cited the fact that Jesse Jackson had just last week visited a trailer park full of white, um, folks: "We need to reach out to those people, too.''

Those people? All this proved a bit much for John Edwards, whose knowledge of the South is firsthand and not anthropological. Edwards, who grew up white, working class and Southern, made the devastatingly correct observation that Dean's problem is not racism but condescension.

Edwards is too politic to say it, but it's not hard to read the subtext of his rejoinder -- that this snob from the very White Mountains of New England thinks we Southerners are the kind of trash James Carville once said (of Paula Jones) you find by dragging a $100 bill through a trailer park. You could almost hear Edwards saying: Vote for me, another Southern white like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- winners both -- rather than another effete Northerner, this one from the mean streets of Montpelier.

It was quite a show. As always, the Democratic candidates were trying to play Everyman. Edwards, like Gephardt and Lieberman, can carry it off because his humble roots are genuine. Dean has succeeded in playing Everyman by being Angry Man. But anger is a sometime thing, hard to sustain day in and day out, while Dean's Yalie, moneyed blueblood roots (remarkably similar to those of the man he would like to run against) are forever.

They came bursting out with the pickup truck remark. Is he disciplined enough to keep himself from dropping the mask again? I doubt it.

The bigger problem for all of them, however, once they work out their personas, is what are they going to talk about? The recent economic news was a devastating blow to their White House chances. The Democrats tried the "worst economy since the Great Depression'' in 1992 and it worked. They have been trying that theme again all through this year. Alas, it becomes an absurdity when the economy grows at 7.2 percent.

It must be admitted that rarely have the authorities in any government applied more stimulus to the U.S. economy: taxes are cut, twice; interest rates are reduced to historic lows; the dollar is cheap; and the deficit, $374 billion and counting, is exerting a massive Keynesian stimulus. Democrats could reasonably argue that any economy that did not respond to this kind of stimulus would have to be termed clinically dead. But they can not claim it, because they opposed the principal stimulus, the tax cuts, the obvious countercyclical response to the recessionary effects of the bursting of the high-tech bubble in 2000.

My guess is that if the economy is neutralized as an issue by growth in 2004, the election will become a referendum on Iraq. More Americans already believe that the president is doing a poor job on Iraq rather than a good one. If things continue to deteriorate, the Democrats will likely gravitate to the left and to the candidate who was the most opposed to the war in the first place -- and who might most plausibly argue for withdrawal.

Question is: Can Howard Dean sell that to the guy with a Confederate flag in his pickup?