DON'T "LOOK AWAY" JUST YET: A "SOUTHERN STRATEGY'"FOR THE DEMOCRATS
I’m afraid I have to add a modest qualifier to Ralph Luker’s contention (below) “that no Democrat has ever been elected president of the United States without being competitive in the South, i.e., without carrying at least five Southern states.” Bill Clinton, might have said, “It all depends on what your definition of ‘southern’ is,” I suppose. If you count Kentucky, ol’Bubba himself sure enough carried five southern states in both ’92 and ’96 but I think it is important to note that he didn’t need any of them to win. In fact, between 1968 (when Nixon actually needed only one southern state) and 2000, the only winner who really required southern votes to be elected was Jimmy Carter.
On their way to blaming the South for the whole country’s shift to the right, liberal pundits have overlooked the fact that when the Republicans swept the South in the 1980s, they swept the nation as well. What may have begun as their “southern strategy” turned out to be a pretty nifty national strategy as well. In my perhaps-not-humble-enough- opinion, the “Republicanus Interruptus” of the Clinton era was no more the result of Clinton’s ability to convince some southern whites that he was more conservative than his Yankee colleagues than of his success in persuading some northern white voters of the same thing. Needless to say, I certainly agree with Ralph that the Republicans can continue to win in national elections without the South until the cows come home. They won’t have to, of course, so long as the Demos continue to impose a comprehensive ideological litmus test on prospective supporters. Remember the eruption of blue-state outrage when Howard Dean suggested that his party actually needed the support of folks who sport Confederate flag decals on their pickups? More recently, as Ralph points out,
Kevin Drum agonizes over this issue as well:
“Most of the time I think that of course we need to contest the South: it's just too big to cede without a fight. But then I begin to think about abortion. And gay rights. And separation of church and state. And racial equality. And labor rights.
And I just give up. Given the way the majority of southerners think about this stuff, how can we win regularly in the South without completely selling our souls?”
There’s a formula for political victory if I’ve ever heard it: “Let’s focus on where we disagree.” My recipe for the Democrats in the South may not be any better, but I believe there is real traction on the issue of the working poor, who abound in all colors throughout the South. Continued Republican opposition to raising the minimum wage is both unconscionable and impossible to dodge. This is not about welfare or even unemployment assistance. It’s about people who are clearly doing their best to provide for themselves and their families and simply can’t do it on wages that are totally out of line with their productivity and the profits it generates. The race issue has been manipulated throughout southern history to thwart the politics of economic interest, and the Republicans may well trot out that tactic again, and it may work again. Even so, focusing on the plight of the working poor would at least give the Democrats a chance to be Democrats again while appealing to a constituency they clearly need and one that just as clearly needs them.
Robert KC Johnson - 6/22/2006
This is true--but in federal elections they've certainly struggled.
If I were a Democratic strategist, I'd be inclined to agree with your analysis at least for the short term--states like NH or Ohio or Florida (which in many ways isn't really a Southern state) are the party's best bet. But that's an awfully narrow margin of error, too.
Christopher Richardson - 6/22/2006
I'm not convinced local Dems can't win though. I mean Dems control all or part of the legislatures in Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
Perhaps understanding their respective recipes for victories can help national Democrats understand the best methods of winning. While im sure the vast majority of these Democrats are "old-time" Democrats who are really REpublican, surely some of them have found a winning formula, particularly in NC where the Dems lost the Senate only to regain it 2 years later.
Also, who is to say that Dems cannot win without the South. Had Gore concentrated a bit harder on winning New Hampshire in 2000 and then Ohio in his re-election in 2004, the South would've been irrelevant.
Robert KC Johnson - 6/22/2006
I'm skeptical: if local Dems can't do it, how can national ones?
If we count KY and OK as Southern states, only 3 of the 13 Southern states have even one Democratic senator (ARK, LA, and FL); only Arkansas has a majority-Dem House delegation.
I think Howard Dean's 50-state strategy is the correct one for the DNC, but until the party rebuilds some of its grassroots Southern strength, it's going to be tough going. The Dems are never going to be competitive in Mississippi or Oklahoma, but they have to find a way to compete again in down-the-line races in states like Georgia or Tennessee.
James C. Cobb - 6/22/2006
Ralph, your comment re Clinton is precisely my point: "it's unlikely that he would have carried some of the non-Southern states he did, if he hadn't conducted the kind of campaign that made him competative in the South." Flip this over and we might also say that, save for the Bubba interregnum, when, not coincidentally, the Republicans were according prime convention air time to some of their high-profile nut cases, the things that GOP candidates have to done to appeal to southern whites appears to have worked pretty well with northern whites as well. I am pleased that you see some merit in my suggestions for the Demos, but i doubt that they have either the guts or the good sense to move in that direction.
Ralph E. Luker - 6/22/2006
I appreciate your qualifier, Jim, but it doesn't qualify much. I was referring to Democrats elected to the White House and we both know that Jimmy Carter and ol' Bubba were the only Democrats elected since 1968. So, Carter wouldn't have been elected without carrying his Southern states, but Bubba could have been. Yes, but it's unlikely that he would have carried some of the non-Southern states he did, if he hadn't conducted the kind of campaign that made him competative in the South. On the other hand, I agree with you that the economic issues like the minimum wage and, I think it fair to add, social security and medical aid, are winning issues for Democrats across the South and the country. On the hot-button social issues, I think the Democrats have to learn to allow their state and local candidates to be attuned to their state and local constituencies, who after all is who they're supposed to represent.