Flag flap: Dean destoys his chances

Posted: Nov 07, 2003 12:00 AM

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."

But Dean said it's racist and, well, he doesn't really care so long as the racists vote for him.

Or at least that's what he initially said. Realizing that his position was untenable, he had to apologize. Sort of. In his mea culpa in New York on Nov. 5, Dean said he was sorry if he caused blacks or Southerners any pain (I'm sure millions were in agony) but, he insisted, what he was really trying to do was launch a much-needed "dialogue." It's funny how he never mentioned that was his intent until the whole thing blew up in his face.

Dean had an opportunity for his own Sista Souljah moment. That was when Clinton offended Jesse Jackson by denouncing black rap and signaled that he was willing to throw off the puppet strings of black activists in his party. Instead, Dean offered a different sort of Clintonesque moment, signaling that when caught in an untenable situation he can spout a fog obfuscation and explanations untethered to reality.

Worse, he offered his quasi-apology the same day he signaled that he wanted to opt out of public financing for his campaign. Dean has long said such a move by a Democrat would be an outrage, but he could have gotten away with it by appealing to the Democrats' desire to win.

But by announcing the move in the same speech that he offered apologetic gobbledygook about the flag flap, he seemed desperate, arrogant and unprepared for the big leagues. I mean he made Al Sharpton seem like the more mature candidate.

Dean may still win the nomination and conceivably the presidency. But this week he made his job tougher by managing to insult Southern whites and liberal blacks and flip-flopping on a core issue of his campaign and his party. Talk about classic Democratic marksmanship - he shot himself in the foot three times.