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Tuesday, January 27, 2004  

A Different Kind of Bold

By way of preamble, let me note this: the Democrats don't need a single Southern state to win the Presidency. Gore didn't have one (though he was a Southerner) and was the Granite State away from the White House (not to mention Ohio). Clark and Edwards cite the fact that no Democrat has won the Presidency without winning in the South. True, but they can, and this is no election to choose a candidate simply because of his accent.

That said, what should the Democrats do about the South? In this month's American Prospect, Kevin Phillips argues they should definitely begin to make inroads in the South, if not for 2004, then in the process of building a coalition for the future. He offers some suggestions about how to make the inroads, arguing that Dems should exploit divisions clearly masked to those gazing from such far-flung places as Oregon.

But at some point, be it 2004 or 2008, Democrats are going to have to confront the GOP coalition in a way that challenges its particular vulnerabilities: the preemptive-war doctrine, the excessively sweeping definitions of sin and the primitive views of the congressional party on family planning, reproductive rights and even evolution. Bob Jones University is a joke in Charleston and Hilton Head, not just Boston and Madison. The fact that 50 percent to 55 percent of Bush's 2000 voters believe in Armageddon is not likely to be a recommentation on Long Island or in La Jolla, any more than on Downing Street or New York's UN Plaza.

What's surprising is that Phillips doesn't say the Democrats should soft-peddle their own views of morality and religion. He says that blasting those views will appeal in key districts in the South.

Urban and suburban upper-middle-class districts diverged from rural and small-town fundamentalist districts--the division between metropolitan Atlanta and rural and small-town Georgia is the classic example. The odds are that a shrewd campaign to cast the Robertsons, Falwells, and Joneses as extremists in the North would also have some success in parts of the South, as Key's state profiles and McCain's [2000] results suggest.

This is a fascinating recommendation, flying as it does in the face of the current conventional wisdom dictating Dean appear in as many churches as will allow him through the door.

Phillips offers a valuable insight here. (Beyond noting that the South might be regarded as something other than a monolith of pick-up trucks and confederate flags. Even within segments who would generally tack more toward Bush--religious, rural, parochial--his message may overstep their views on religion and morality. And his cultural friendliness toward their values in general may be compromised by his policies favoring the wealthy as well as wars they and their families must fight.)

He suggests the radical notion that Dems lead with their most stongly-held views instead of pandering to product-tested policy. Clinton rewrote political strategy when he reached across the aisle and reclaimed the Reagan Democrats. The holy grail has since been adopting a hodgepodge of popular conservative ideas to woo key segments of the electorate.

There's an older and far more successful example the Democrats could follow: the GOP. When Reagan sought to finally destroy the last vestiges of Democratic supremacy (which Phillips first wrote was in decline in 1969), he didn't craft an offend-no-one strategy. He led with radical ideas that sharply opposed many of the chestnut values of the Great Society. In the process, the GOP became the juggernaut I hope is about to begin its decline.

The now-beleagered Deaniboppers have been arguing the boldness position for a year, and slowly but surely the Kerrys and Clarks are talking a slightly uppity game. Hard to see how they're modern-day Reagans (or FDRs, for that matter), but you never know. Maybe they found the faith.

My guess is that any serious Democratic national strategy is going to have to make boldness work. For all that, it may take a couple of elections--and if the party does, even the South may sit up and take notice.

Whatsay we skip the couple elections and move right to the boldness now?

posted by Jeff | 7:38 AM |
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