What Huey Long Knew

The Democratic Party's problems in the South got bigger last week, as Republicans picked up governorships in Kentucky and Mississippi. "I think it's clear they have problems in the South," Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke, chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association, attributed his party's losses to the bad national economy, which he said "triggered a strong anti-incumbent mood in the electorate." In other words, the GOP victories are bad news for President Bush, since he'll be the incumbent-in-chief next year.

An anti-incumbent mood may have dictated the outcome in California last month, where the debate between Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was about management of the state's finances. But the driving force behind the GOP's Southern victories isn't economics. It's values. "I like the fact that Haley Barbour is a man of good values," Bush said as he campaigned in Mississippi. "He honors his family. He treasures his relationship with the Almighty."

In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Paul E. Patton had confessed to marital infidelity last year. Even though Patton wasn't running for re-election, Bush knew exactly how to turn Patton's problems into an issue. "You want your kids looking at somebody for whom you can be proud," Bush said at a Kentucky campaign rally. " Ernie Fletcher values his faith, he values his family."

Fletcher carried Kentucky by 10 points last week. Barbour won Mississippi's governorship by 8.

The South has been voting strongly Republican in presidential contests since Ronald Reagan's re-election. But Republicans have had a harder time on the state level. In 1984, Reagan carried every Southern state. After that election, Democrats still governed 10 of 13 Southern states (all but North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia).

In 2000, once again, the Republican presidential nominee took every Southern state. When Bush took office in 2001, Republicans had nearly caught up with Democratic governors in the South (seven Democratic governors, six Republicans). After last Tuesday's election, Republicans hold a clear edge -- nine Southern Republican governors, only four Democrats (among them, interestingly, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia).

Democrats can compete in the South by changing the subject from values to economics. That is what Howard Dean argues he was trying to do when on October 31 he said, "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." Aren't Republicans supposed to be the party with a problem on the Confederate flag issue? They're not alone any more.

Back in February, Dean told the Democratic National Committee, "White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag 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."

Was Dean stereotyping Southern whites as racists? His comment drew an immediate rebuke from Al Sharpton who said, "Most poor Southern whites don't wear a Confederate flag. And you ought not try to stereotype that."

Was Dean—who is nobody's idea of a good ol' boy—presuming to lecture Southern whites about race? He told the Democrats in February, "I intend to talk about race during this election in the South because the Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us, and I'm going to bring us together."

A Southern presidential candidate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, smelled condescension. He shot back at Dean, "The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do.... I have seen it. I have grown up with it. I'm here to tell you it is wrong. It is condescending."

And arrogant—a quality some observers saw in Dean's behavior at the November 4 debate and again the next day, when he said that many blacks and whites "have understood what this is about ... but to those who do not, I regret the pain I have caused." In other words, Dean was apologizing to those who didn't "understand" what he was trying to say.

Lonnie Randolph, chairman of the South Carolina NAACP, told The New York Times, "Probably more damaging than anything else is that he didn't want to apologize. It shows a degree of arrogance that I don't think people in public office can afford to have."

Dean says he wants to talk to Southerners about race so he can get them to think about their economic interests. But the only way you get can Southerners to focus on economics is by not talking about race. Probably the greatest economic populist in Southern history, Huey Long of Louisiana, figured that out long ago.

A Vermont Yankee like Dean has to learn it the hard way. By bringing up the Confederate flag image, Dean brought the debate right back to values. And when he defended his values, Dean fell right into the trap. "I'm not going to take a backseat to anybody in terms of fighting bigotry," Dean said in the debate. "I am the only person here who ever signed a bill that outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians."

That was a bill creating civil unions for gay couples. And that's a very tough sell to Southern white guys who put Confederate flags on their pickup trucks.