Tactics and Substance in the 2004 Elections GoogleNews: Howard Dean

November 1, 2003

by J

Ridiculousness of the First Order

This manufactured 'controversy' is a complete joke. As though anyone with even the barest reading comprehension skills doesn't know exactly what Dean meant. Kerry and Gephardt are exhibiting unprincipled desperation. cdmarine in the BFA comments thread said it best:
This makes me unspeakably furious.

What Gov. Dean is doing right now is, quite frankly, heroic.

He is attempting to reverse the disgusting Republican "Southern Strategy," which consists of convincing poor, Southern white voters that their troubles are caused by government pandering to minorities. It is pure EVIL.

It is about time a Democratic politician had the balls to stand up and call it what it is, and tell these people that they've been used and bamboozled for the past three decades by a party that LIED to them about their own interests. It is about time a Democratic politician had the balls to say to the poor, white Southern voter, "Look around you! You have far more in common with the poor, black voter than you do with the rich corporate interests you've been fooled into supporting all this time!"

And Sens. Kerry and Gephardt KNOW this. Do not think for ONE SECOND that they do not KNOW this. All Democratic politicians on the national stage know this. They are leveling a cheap, dishonest charge of veiled racism at Gov. Dean for political gain, and IT IS DISGUSTING.

As of now, I have lost all respect I ever had for either of these men.

And I will redouble my efforts to get Gov. Dean elected.
The AP story -- for once, a reporter (in this case, William C. Mann) doing his job to provide some actual context instead of just dueling quotes -- had a nice observation:
Dean spokeswoman Tricia Enright told The Associated Press that Dean had previously used the Confederate flag image in his campaign.

One instance came Feb. 22 at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington. Dean said the men with Confederate flag decals in their pickup trucks represented lucrative prospects for the party "because their kids don't have health insurance, either, and their kids need better schools, too."

The party elite stood and cheered.
Aside: One wonders if Dick Gephardt's quote in the AP should be taken to read that he's going to write off the south.
Posted by J at November 1, 2003 06:45 PM

Well, I agree that Dean's comment was MEANT to be innocuous, and I understand the point he was trying to make (I guess I pass the reading comp skill test.) And I also agree that Kerry and Gephardt's attempts to make some political hay of this do smack somewhat of desperation. But, basically, Dean mentioning the Confederate flag to make his inclusiveness point was not only boneheaded...it reflects a misunderstanding of the South and Southern issues that borders on condescension. (Perhaps such condescension comes from being a "northern evangelist.")

For one, Dean could've made the same point by inserting "Dale Earnhardt's number" or "Travis Tritt bumper sticker" and it'd have been no harm, no foul. But he should've known - and if he didn't know, someone should've told him - that the words "Confederate flag" are fraught with meaning below the Mason-Dixon line, and that - believe it or not - the average working-class Southern man does not have it emblazoned across his truck. (In fact, even a majority of South Carolina Republicans wanted the flag gone from the State House in 2000.) I don't need to tell you this, but the flag has become a coded symbol of "heritage" for a small and powerful minority of reactionary Southerners ever since Montgomery and Birmingham, and you know what, these folks are just not going to vote Democratic...in fact, they left the Democratic party for this very reason. Not for nothing has the NAACP been threatening a boycott of South Carolina and Georgia because of the flag. Sharpton's remark about "helmets and swastikas" may seem over the top, until you realize exactly why and how the Stars n Bars was reintroduced into Southern life. Most Southerners - even working-class Southerners - know this (and I think Edwards and Clark strike the right note in this donnybrook) and are embarrassed by the flag these days...perhaps somebody should tell Dean that, and that there's more to the South than Lynrd Skynrd and the General Lee.

Finally, this cdmarine comment is pretty ludicrous. Before we give Howard Dean the Medal of Honor for speaking truth to the ignorant South, are we to assume that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and, well, frankly almost every other Southern "Democratic politician" in the past thirty years have not been making this point? Well, gosh, then I guess it's good for Dean to have "had the balls" to come down and edumacate us. It's not "heroic" for Dean to be throwing around the Stars n' Bars to reach out to working-class (white) Southerners - it's either bumbling or offensive.

Finally, I don't think Gephardt's statement means he's writing off the South. Both African-Americans and southern progressives are disgusted by the flag, and I'd think they make up a majority of primary voters. If we're talking about the general election, the Af-Am vote is still key...and the best way to depress that turnout is to give the type of "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" comment about the flag that Dean inadvertently (I hope) stumbled into.

In closing, let me reiterate - I do NOT think Dean is a racist. I DO understand the point he was trying to make, and I am sympathetic to his reaching out to the South...Lord knows, he's gonna have to. But mentioning the flag, even in passing, is emphatically NOT the way to go about it.

Posted by: Kevin at November 1, 2003 11:56 PM

Finally, finally, in closing...Sorry, should've edited out a few of those introductory adverbs. Nevertheless, the sentiment stands.

Posted by: Kevin at November 2, 2003 03:03 AM

It's not ridiculous. It's true. It's a very rare politician (esp. at the Presidential level) who will come right out and say this stuff explicitly the way Dean does. Far more common are the politicians who simply write off the demographic Dean is talking about as hopelessly Republican, and attempt to make up for the loss with other demographics. Frankly, I think that's sad. Those people can be reached and, more importantly, deserve to be reached. They've been lied to and have nothing to show for it.

And there would BE no misunderstanding that Dean was somehow expressing support for the Confederate flag if there were not cynical Democratic candidates dishonestly milking it for all it's worth. These guys aren't stupid, and they're not unaware of the reference to the Southern Strategy. They know damn well what Dean's saying, and what he's not saying, but they don't give shit. They're willing to torpedo this critical message (do you think they aren't, by their actions, closing this message off from future availability to their own campaigns, should they get the nod?) in an effort to derail Dean at all costs.

It's disgusting. Period.

Posted by: cdmarine at November 2, 2003 05:31 AM

For one, Dean could've made the same point by inserting "Dale Earnhardt's number" or "Travis Tritt bumper sticker" and it'd have been no harm, no foul.

Well, except then the 'vote your interests, not your bigotry' subtext disappears.

- the average working-class Southern man does not have it emblazoned across his truck.

Nothing he's said implies that is the case.

Finally, this cdmarine comment is pretty ludicrous. Before we give Howard Dean the Medal of Honor for speaking truth to the ignorant South

Once again, assuming a generalization where there is none.

best way to depress that turnout is to give the type of "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" comment about the flag that Dean inadvertently (I hope) stumbled into.

Oh give me a break. There's nothing "nudge, nudge" about it. There's no 'coded message' he's trying to convey. What he said in February is crystal clear and a roomful of Democrats that included some of his fellow candidates, applauded:

the Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us. And I'm going to bring us together, because you know what? White folks in the south who drive pickups trucks with confederate flags 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.

What's the secret message that us non-flag-displaying truck drivers are missing?

Posted by: J at November 2, 2003 06:14 AM

Well, J, if you were from the South, you wouldn't have to ask. When a political candidate tells a newspaper, "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," it usually carries a whole host of coded meanings down South, meanings that are not lost on either its white or black residents. Now, as I said, I know this isn't the message Dean was trying to convey. (He's made the same point more lucidly here, and that's why I say he "stumbled into" it.) But, frankly, he should've known better. And just because a crowd of DC pols clapped for a more nuanced use of the flag rhetoric a few months ago doesn't absolve him of stupidity this time around.

Again, think of Sharpton's comments about helmets and swastikas - You might think that's over the top, but you know what? A lot of Southerners don't. You don't play lightly with such charged historical symbols, particularly in such a way as to suggest that Dean's willing to look the other way on the racism that feeds the flag.

And cdmarine, I have to disagree with you about the notion that Dean's striking out on brave new ground here...Southern Dems have been making the same point for an age. To take just one example, here's LBJ speaking in New Orleans in '64, the year that witnessed the stillbirth of the Southern strategy: "All those years they have kept their foot on our necks by appealing to our animosities and dividing us. I am not going to let them build up the hate and try to buy my people by appealing to their prejudice." In other words, the sentiment Dean tried to express has been around for decades, and it's usually done a lot less hamhandedly.

It's suggested above that Dean did not try to conflate Confederate flag supporters and working-class Southern voters, yet in his response he declares that "The only way we're going to beat George Bush is if southern white working families and African-American working families come together under the Democratic tent." This is true, but why is Dean using the flag to reach out to southern white working families? Perhaps because he misunderstands the nature of support for the flag down South - many, if not most, working-class white families think it's an embarrassment. As Edwards noted in his comment, to suggest otherwise is borderline offensive, and reflects an understanding of the South that seems based more on popular stereotype than anything else.

As I said above, the comments of Kerry and Gephardt do carry more than a tint of desperation. But that doesn't absolve Dean of colossal idiocy with that off-hand remark.

Posted by: Kevin at November 2, 2003 12:00 PM

Well, I'm hoping to take this in a bit of a different direction, but only because I feel I'm not as up to speed on this as I should be. I haven't talked to anyone who was at the event where Dean said this, so I feel uncomfortable with context issues. Still, I get his general point.

I'm Southern. I'm from Arkansas. I am a strong Democrat. I have strong Democratic values, and right now I like Dean a lot, though I'm keeping my options open, looking at Edwards and Clark as well. We'll see.

I agree with Kevin -- I get where Gov. Dean was going. But why, when we talk about 'the South' or 'Southerners' does it seem we're speaking of a foreign country? Why the generalization (and the poor imagery of the Confederate flag to make that generalization)?
I'm tired of feeling like a reject of American society because I like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Nascar. I like Memphis bar-b-que and country music. I like wearing cowboy boots and I like fishing. Just because I like those things, just because I talk funny (funnier than my friends from New York, Chicago, D.C., Boston and -- ahem -- Vermont) doesn't mean I'm not a Democrat, and it doesn't mean I'm not a proud American. But I also believe that if you're running for POTUS, you ought to come and ask for my vote, tell me why you deserve it. What are you going to do for the country? What are you going to do for health care, the economy, our terrible international situation?

A few of you seem so ready to praise Dean for 'speaking the truth'. Okay, it's true. But he's running for President. Would it not have been better -- and just as true -- to say "I intend to go to Arkansas and Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia, Texas and Tennessee, Kentucky and Louisiana, the Carolinas and Virginia and campaign just as hard as I did in Iowa and New Hampshire. The people that live there have the same problems we all do -- no health care, no jobs, a country back in debt. I know that the people in those states have often voted for Republicans in the past. I intend to give them a reason to vote for me."

'Guys with Confederate flags on their trucks' -- come on. Are we so lazy that we've allowed the level of dialogue to drop to this? Save that stuff for Bush. Somebody -- anybody -- start speaking to the American people again like a leader, not an (offensive) moron. "Heroic", J? You're not a hero if you're shaming someone. And his comment, flip though it was, shamed Southern men who are looking for someone to raise that level of dialogue.

I'm a Southern man. I'm embarrassed by the Confederate flag, and I'm embarrassed by the South's history of racial intolerance. I graduated from Little Rock Central High, the home of the 1957 integration crisis. We ought to be talking about race in this campaign. We ought to be talking about continuing to heal our country, and we ought to figure out which Democratic candidate is going to do what he can to bring our country together, racially, geographically.

I don't think Dean can do that if he makes remarks about something as shameful as the Confedreate flag and applies it to a whole section of the country. I really want to like Governor Dean, and I really want a reason to vote for him. What can only be described as aloof Yankee snobbery is not going to get me there.

Posted by: Ben at November 2, 2003 02:47 PM

he makes remarks about something as shameful as the Confedreate flag and applies it to a whole section of the country.

I still don't see where this broad generalization happened.

Surely we can't deny that there exists a demographic consisting of white folks in the south who put confederate flag decals on their cars? Why is out of bounds for Dean to say he wants their votes too? I'm much more ticked off at Gephardt and Kerry flipping them the bird and basically saying 'Don't vote for Democrats; we think you suck, you bigots.' Who's the aloof Yankee snob, now?

Posted by: J at November 2, 2003 02:58 PM

J, the broad generalization is the whole point of the thing. It is what the guy said (following is cut and pasted from the story itself). But this is also why I said that I was mildly uncomfortable with the context of the thing. Did he just say "guys with Confederate flag decals...," or was there more to it that none of us have seen (or at least me)?

"One instance came Feb. 22 at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington. Dean said the men with Confederate flag decals in their pickup trucks represented lucrative prospects for the party "because their kids don't have health insurance, either, and their kids need better schools, too."

J, I make no apologies -- you can't be a presidential candidate and say something like that for two reason, no matter how good a candidate you are. One, despite your protestations, it is a generalization. I don't think Bill Clinton ever once said, "Yeah, those Yakees ought to vote for me." I don't know of something more offensive we could use to generalize Yankees. But that leads to the second point. There is a terrible, shameful part of America's past, and it applies to the South specifically. Our horrifying racial intolerance is symbolized in the ugly Confederate flag.

There is a great debate in our society, at least in the South, about the true meaning of the flag. To use a generalization, (soon to be annointed as a Deanism, I'm sure) Yankees may not be able to understand it. Many truly believe it is a part of their heritage, and attach no racial hatred towards it. Many also believe the South should have won the Civil War, and attach every nightmarish, evil connotation to the flag you can imagine.
We could go on and on about what the flag means all day. But there is no denying there is debate around the meaning of the Confederate flag. It was unwise of Governor Dean to invoke it in terms of wooing voters.

Regarding the Kerry, Gephardt and others piece of it, I say, welcome to politics. Listen, this is the major leagues, the big show. If a ball rolls down the line, and the ump calls it fair, but you think it might be foul, you ought to fight it. Don't get me wrong, J -- I think we, Democrats, ought to be fighting with a unified, loud voice. Especially considering our opposition seems to be more formidable than we expected (somehow). The other candidates don't help that cause by beating up on Dean. But Dean himself does us no service by speaking crudely.

Posted by: Ben at November 2, 2003 03:36 PM

I'm a northerner. I'm from upstate NY. I consider myself a liberal, or maybe more accurately a cynical libertarian. I drove a truck (OTR) for several years off and on after law school while my wife did her PhD. (It paid better, generally, than being a prosecutor.) Sometimes I had to go to the South, and after the first couple of times, I screamed bloody murder each time. I can't stand heat, and it went downhill from there. With apologies to Ben, the South feels foreign to me, and I often laugh at the irony of the Texas tourism ads. I think they're more correct than they let on.

I now live in the NW, specifically Washington state. I am a full time prosecutor, and still a part time (fully certified) cop in another county. In most of the country, the Confederate flag is at best a racist symbol. A vast majority of the time, displaying it also is a way of signifying identification with the Nazi/Skinhead/White Supremacist movement. To me, when I see one, I work from that frame of mind - these are people who would kill me if given the chance, becase I am part of and/or represent the "ZOG".

This is apparently not common knowledge, which I sometimes forget. However, someone who wants to be considered seriously in the public policy arena damned well ought to know this. It makes me very uncomfortable that Dean (or anyone else) would say what he said without understanding that meaning. Heck, a candidate for school board in East Livermore Falls, Maine ought to know that. I can guess what Dean meant, but as pointed out above in Ben's and Kevin's well thought out responses, there are a heck of a lot of better ways to say what he meant. What came out was a much different meaning.

Delicious irony division continued: I sometimes drawl, due to 14 years in Illinois. I too listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd and have far too many of their albums (showing my age); most of my favorite musical artists are from the South, from Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and ElmoreJames to Travis Tritt and Brooks & Dunn. I'm a gun owner, view being unarmed in public as negligence, and consider that as much a civil liberties issue as reproductive choice and the 1st Amendment. Try finding a candidate that doesn't cause a gag reflex with those views.

Dean was close, but he really stepped in it (or on it) with this one.

Posted by: Doug (the Thug) at November 2, 2003 06:13 PM

What people are persistently failing to get here is the generalization doesn't come from Howard Dean. It comes from the Republicans. The WHOLE POINT is that the Republicans have spent the last three decades specifically targetting the South in order to create this "confederate flag" demographic. THEY are the ones who have treated the South as a foreign country with its own special rules. When Dean refers to this demographic that way, it's because he wants to acknowledge that the Republicans have done this, and wants to REVERSE IT. He wants to bring Nixon's Southern Strategy to an end.

Posted by: cdmarine at November 2, 2003 09:14 PM

Oh, CDMARINE, I think you've slipped off base, here. We've lost sight of the nature of this debate.

It's really not that hard. Howard Dean is going to be the nominee, but he needs to be better scripted, and someone ought to reign him in. Or at least be able to effectively monitor what he says. Joe Trippi and the other top Dean advisors ought to be going nuts right now trying to figure this out. "The boss just can't keep saying stuff like this! He's the frontrunner! It worked raising money when we were behind, but we're gonna win the nomination!"

This is a run for the Presidency, people. Big leagues. Serious stuff. And the opposition is ruthless and cunning, well equipped and funded like a small country. Moreover, if you read the Washington POST today, you'll see that the country is divided nearly perfectly in half (just as we were in 2000, might I add).
I get that Dean is Mr. (Dr.) 'Straight Talk', The Classic Unscripted Guy. Yeah, okay. Real impressive. Now, somebody get this guy a speechwriter. Somebody get this guy a person who will tell him, "hey, it's not cool to bring up the Confederate flag in any context unless you want to be debating it for the rest of your life. Instead talk about healing divisions in this country and inviting people who haven't always voted with us in the past to come on over. Tell them why. Don't be condescending."

Seriously -- we could talk about race and the flag and all that forever more. This is a scripting issue. You can't say things like that and expect people to vote for you.

Posted by: Ben at November 2, 2003 11:14 PM

Ben, I don't have a problem with people suggesting better ways to convey the message he's conveying. What I have a problem with is people lying about what it is he's trying to say. There are people who have been critical of him who are choosing to lie about why he's saying what he's saying. It's utterly absurd and dishonest that there are candidates claiming that Howard Dean is expressing support for the confederate flag. They KNOW what he's talking about, and they KNOW that's not it.

Posted by: cdmarine at November 3, 2003 12:48 AM

It's funny: when Dean first started saying that, I was wondering how long it would be before somebody attacked him for it. I knew what he was trying to say but I was afraid it could be read wrong...but this delayed reaction seems desperate...he has been saying this same thing for months!

Posted by: Laura in DC at November 3, 2003 02:09 AM

I find it interesting that in the same thread people say both that the South should not be treated like a foreign country and that if you're not from the south you can't possibly understand southerners. *brain goes poof*

It may be the case that my enfeebled Yankee brain is just not up to grasping Southern subtleties.[1] However, I grew up in a very rural area and I'm inclined to give some credence to some of the southerners who've been posting about this around the web who acknowledge that, at a minimum, the confederate flag is not solely a racist symbol. I'd also conjecture that what the confederate flag represents in the northwest is probably quite different from what it represents in some parts of the south. Appropriating a symbol is different from having generated one. Subtleties are probably lost. So, does being willing to listen to southerners who claim that a particular southern symbol doesn't represent only bad things make me a good Yankee or a bad Yankee when it comes to understanding the South? (And personal expression is, of course, a different thing from state-sponsored expression.)

Finally, the quote that spawned the latest round of attacks on Dean in the Des Moines article is very decontextualized. We have little idea what the declaration of wanting to be the candidate for guys with confederate flag decals was in response to. I can imagine a series of questions that would lead innocuously to that statement. Reporter than pulls that one as the juiciest (it's what reporters do), doesn't present the question it was in response to or the sentence that came before, and voila, big controversy. I'm extremely reluctant to accept the premise that the words "confederate flag" should never come out of a political candidate's mouth, but that seems to be the general consensus among non-Dean-supporting Democrats. For what that says for the discourse, it disturbs me.

[1] In fact, it's probably true. I had an online conversation with a Texan once and another Texan had to point out to me that I'd just been told to fuck off in Texan and didn't even know it. Ha!

Posted by: J at November 4, 2003 09:12 AM

Actually, the (Inland) NW is not at all the core of the Nazi (etc) (Nazis, Skins, KKK, and their ilk) movement. The I5 corridor (LA to Bellingham) has far more skinhead activity, as do portions of the midwest and east (Missouri to PA and upstate NY), and of course the south. Check out the information available from the Southern Poverty Law Center - this not new, it's old news. The meaning I refer to is the majority meaning, and it is not new.

I think (hope) I know what Dean was trying to say and do, but he missed. He missed badly. To be in the public policy arena and not realize what a divisive, meaning laden symbol that flag is frightens me about his judgment, thought processes, and advisors.

Some have claimed that Dean is trying to respond to the southern strategy of the Republican party, and that may be correct to some extent. However, that is an oversimplification of history. The Republican party took advantage of an existing situation and viewpoint that long predates this strategy. Is it the South only? Hell no. Been to Chicago recently? The racial divisiveness there makes me think of "Mississippi Burning".

I do not think Dean is being mean spirited or buying into this mentality. I do think he is missing out intellectually and ethically on the underlying meanings of what he said. This is not isolated - his vacillations on renewal of the Cosmetically Offensive Weapons Ban sound like standard issue political weasel words of the first order.

Much to my horror, I actually found myself agreeing with Al Sharpton and his critiques of Dean on the flag issue made a few days ago, and I certainly have no respect for Sharpton. Anyone who can make Sharpton sound reasonable has some serious flaws.

Posted by: Doug the Thug at November 8, 2003 01:35 PM

We'll have to agree to disagree.

I just don't want accept John Kerry's notion that we must now refer to the confederate flag as "the flag that must not be named" as though we all live at Hogwart's. The general consensus (except for Gep and Kerry who don't want icky people to vote for them) is that what Dean is advocating is sound policy -- we cannot just write off people because they're bigots; that's the best way for them to remain bigoted.

The dispute seems to be over that he said the (now verboten, I guess) words "confederate flag." I find that strange. It's as though as a feminist I were to write-off anyone who ever uttered the word "cliterodectomy" regardless of what they were saying about it. John Kerry has said that the purpose of marriage is procreation, thereby suggesting that my marriage is illegitimate; a notion that I find deeply offensive. However, he used 'nice words' to advocate a crappy policy; Dean used bad words (I guess, still not convinced) to advocate a sound policy. I know what my preference is.

On the broader point, Dean has said over and over that there can be no social justice without economic stability. The latter is a necessary condition for the former, and he's right: poor white bigots need education and health care and jobs just like the rest of us do. Until we solve those problems, we don't have a chance in hell of solving the deeper social and cultural problems.

Posted by: J at November 8, 2003 04:31 PM

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