It’s never a good sign for a presidential contender to be backpedaling and issuing apologies. Under fire from his rivals for his comments about wanting to win votes from Southerners who display Confederate battle flag bumper stickers, Democratic front-runner Howard Dean lost momentum in the past few days. But with endorsements coming next week from the nation’s two largest labor unions, in this game of poker Dean still holds a full house, while his rivals have at best three of a kind.
DEAN IS POISED to get the backing of the Service Employees International Union next week.
The SEIU, with 1.6 million members, represents nurses, security guards, janitors and other service-sector workers across the United States and includes in its ranks many Latinos, blacks and immigrants who add ethnic and economic diversity to Dean’s constituency.
And the Associated Press reported Friday that the 1.5-million member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is set to endorse Dean jointly with the SEIU.
A joint SEIU-AFSCME endorsement will be a powerful one-two union punch against Dean’s rivals.
In the Confederate battle flag fracas, which became a point of contention in Tuesday night’s “Rock the Vote” debate, Dean defended his comment, first made nine months ago, that Democrats need to win the votes of whites in Dixie, even of those who display Confederate flag decals on their pickup trucks.
He said such people “ought to be voting with us because their kids don’t have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools, too.”
He spoke of the need to reach out to “white folks making $25,000 a year” who live in trailer parks. Like other Democrats, Dean is frustrated and somewhat puzzled that such voters, as he said, “keep voting Republican against their own economic interests.”
ECONOMICS TRUMPS CULTURE? Dean has a deep faith that economic issues trump cultural issues such as abortion, gay rights, the display of the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courthouse, or flying the Confederate battle flag.
When Republicans have used the Confederate flag as an issue in past elections in the South, Democrats have said “this is merely a wedge issue, not pertinent to the real concerns of working class people.”
But this week it was Dean’s rivals who used the Confederate flag as a wedge issue to split Dean from Democratic primary voters.
Meanwhile, as Republican victories in Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi showed, the Democrats keep losing ground in the South and in border states.
The South has become mostly Republican turf and especially so in presidential elections. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won no Southern states at all.
Strategically speaking, Dean is correct in arguing that Democrats need the votes of Southern whites. Even if Democrats won 99 percent of black voters in the Southern states, it would not be enough to carry any of those states.
PROBLEM WITH BUMPER STICKERS The Confederate battle flag episode reveals Dean’s occasional habit of thinking in epigrammatic, bumper-sticker ideas.
Although he is perfectly capable of long-form speech-making and high-level analysis, Dean, like nearly every other modern politician, often falls back on short epigrammatic comments — especially so in debates and in hurried interviews with reporters.
In this bumper-sticker age, voters use them to express their group solidarity, whether its “Free Tibet” or “Impeach Bush” stickers in Seattle or Confederate flag stickers in Alabama. To reach such bumper-sticker-minded voters, a candidate must often speak in simplified epigrams or images.
But Dean revealed himself as something of an out-of-touch Yankee by using the image of the Confederate battle flag to denote Southern working-class white voters.
“Most poor Southern whites don’t wear a Confederate flag, and you ought not try to stereotype that,” Rev. Al Sharpton chided Dean in Tuesday’s debate.
And North Carolina Sen. John Edwards cleverly exploited regional pride by telling Dean, “the last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do.” Dean’s flag image was “condescending,” he said.
Dean was forced to say, “I do not condone the use of the flag of the Confederate States of America” and to add that “I regret the pain that I may have caused” to blacks or whites by his clumsy symbolism.
WHO CAN CARRY THE SOUTH? But symbolism aside, Dean’s point remained valid: The Democratic candidate cannot simply give up on the 177 electoral votes of the Southern and border states. Those electoral votes are two-thirds of the number needed to win the presidency.
Which of the current Democratic contenders is best equipped to carry some of the Southern and border states?
One answer may come in the Feb. 3 South Carolina primary, the first primary in the South. Some Dixie Democratic leaders think retired Gen. Wesley Clark would be the best fit for their voters.
But another way to answer the question is to study how Southern Democratic senators vote on major issues. Presumably these Democrats — strengthened by “natural selection” to survive in the hostile Republican environment of the South — understand their constituents and win re-election largely by reflecting their views.
Democrats such as Sens. Zell Miller of Georgia, John Breaux of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas have all voted to:
Outlaw the procedure that its opponents call “partial birth abortion.” President Bush signed this bill into law Wednesday.
Cut taxes in 2001 and again in 2003, even though Democrats such as Dean say such tax cuts do not benefit working-class voters in the South or elsewhere.
Authorize Bush in October 2002 to attack Iraq, a position that Dean vehemently opposed.
Appropriate $87 billion to rebuild Iraq and sustain U.S. military operations there and in Afghanistan.
On these votes, Miller, Breaux, and Lincoln were at odds with most of their party’s presidential contenders. And that suggests just as serious a Southern problem for Edwards and Sharpton as for Dean.