The Confederate flap: so long, Howard & hello, Hillary?

Posted: Nov 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Howard Dean really put his mouth in it. The incident may mean he has kissed his sweet Democratic nomination good-bye.

Dean said - he has said the same thing several times since February - he still wants to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. His most recent mouthing led to ridiculous responses by his fellow Democratic wannabes.

Richard Gephardt said he doesn't want to be the candidate "for guys with Confederate flags" in their pickups but "for guys with American flags." John Kerry, implicitly tying the Confederate flag issue to race and guns, said, "I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA."

Al Sharpton dismissed Dean as sounding more like "Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson," adding Dean is "insensitive" and "too arrogant to say 'I'm wrong.' " John Edwards, indignant and almost in tears, joined Sharpton in demanding Dean apologize - and added: "The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need."

Initially, Dean dug in. "I was not wrong, John Edwards!" he said. Later, uncertain how to deal with such confrontational rabbits, he sought counsel from the sage Jimmy Carter. Ultimately Dean said, "I started this discussion in a clumsy way" and "I deeply regret the pain that I may have caused."

Dean is no dummy.

He obviously understands the Republicanization of the formerly Democratic South during the past decades. He meant by his remark that to strengthen themselves nationally the Democrats must broaden their appeal to precisely the Southern whites that have left the Democratic Party in droves. "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats," Dean said along the way. "I make no apology for reaching out to poor white people."

Yet he employed the wrong symbol and slipped. Up there in the Vermontian provinces, Howard Dean may have missed that rightly or wrongly the Confederate flag has been politicized - ideologized - as a symbol of white hatred of African-Americans. Its display on public property is absolutely improper. But its display on private property (even pickups) - indeed, its very mention - roils the domestic sea, as repeated scenes in Richmond amply testify.

And politically, the flag is a killer. Last year Democrat Ben "Cooter" Jones, of "Dukes of Hazzard" television fame, in his congressional campaign for Virginia's 7th District seat, employed the "General Lee" Dodge Charger from the TV show - complete with Confederate flag painted on the roof - as a prop. He said: "I do fly (the Confederate) flag" and "I'm not going to take it down." He lost with hardly more than 30 percent of the vote in a two-man race.

The South has left the Democratic column, no question.

Of the 11 states of the Confederacy, eight have Republican governors. Those states' senators break 13-9 Republican, but Democratic Senators Edwards (North Carolina), Fritz Hollings (South Carolina), and Bob Graham (Florida) are not seeking re-election, with Republicans having solid prospects to replace them next year. Georgia's Democratic Senator Zell Miller, who won't seek re-election either, sounds like a Republican and says he will vote for Bush. The "solid South" now is nearly as solid for the Republicans as it was for the Democrats of old.

But it's a slur on the South to suggest the reason is race - a slur implicit in all the Confederate flag business. Yes, both parties have their racists. Yet the reasons for the Republicanization of the South have less to do with race than with the values the national Democratic Party and growing numbers of Southerners of both races clearly do not share.

The South exalts civility, community and place. There's also, among many, a strong strain of leave-us-alone and let-us-be. All that translates into, and draws from - let's see:

- Profound support for the military and what it does, in a region boasting more active and retired military - and more military bases - than any other.

- Liberty and democracy - here and abroad, even unto Iraq and the Middle East.

- Hostility to federal mandates and oversight.

- Deeply held beliefs about things cultural - what to say and how to do.

The South's abandonment of the national Democrats flowed naturally from the Democrats' abandonment of the South. The process of abandonment may have begun with race, but the parting of ways has not been race-driven for years. As Dean knows, the Democrats cannot win nationally by writing off the South, but he erred perhaps irretrievably in using a symbol now racially infused.

Dean's compelled apology may - or may not - have ended the matter; surely, it has weakened him within his own party. What's more, the entire episode has highlighted the difficulty any among the Democrats currently hustling for their party's presidential nomination will face in taking the ultimate prize next year. All of which means Dean's slip (combined with Wesley Clark's evident failure to really roll) may be just the opening - the opportunity - Hillary, the Democrats' hottest commodity, has been waiting for to enter the race. The next month will tell the tale.