If you want to understand just about everything that is wrong with the way American politics is practiced these days - and especially with the malpractice of the media - consider the absurd controversy about Howard Dean's comment that "I want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."
For years, Democrats have been talking about how to reclaim "the Bubba vote." That's a reference to white working-class men who, among other things, attach Confederate flag stickers to the back windows of their pickup trucks. The flags are usually situated next to the image of a little Calvin urinating on another brand of truck.
Perhaps Dean would have been better off if he'd said, "I want to be the candidate for Chevy drivers who are amused by the idea of taking a leak on Fords." But that would have started a whole different conversation. So he used a conventional shorthand in the political world.
To hear his opponents and much of the media tell it, however, he might as well have said he wanted to be Strom Thurmond's running mate on the Dixiecrat ticket. Richard Gephardt claimed Dean was reaching out to voters "who disagree with us on bedrock Democratic values like civil rights." Joe Lieberman labeled it "irresponsible and reckless." John Kerry said Dean was attempting to "pander to lovers of the Confederate flag." Wesley Clark said all candidates should "condemn the divisiveness the Confederate flag represents." And John Edwards, who made a big deal about going after the Bubba vote early in his campaign, grumbled that "to assume that Southerners who drive trucks would embrace this symbol is offensive."
Edwards, who represents North Carolina in the Senate, might want to get back to the South one of these days and take a look in some parking lots. Southerners who drive trucks do embrace this symbol, as do a lot of rural northerners with pickup trucks.
Neither Edwards nor any of the other candidates really believes that Dean - who is usually accused of being too much of a New England liberal to appeal to Southerners - is a Confederate flag-waving racist. They're just trying to create that impression. In doing so, they are being ridiculously cynical. And, of course, much of the media is aiding the initiative.
What isn't being reported is this reality: Every single presidential candidate who is now expressing concern about Dean's remark has sat in meetings where political operatives, pollsters and consultants have discussed strategies for winning the votes of white working-class males. These voters, whose economic interests would be at least somewhat better served by Democratic policies but who tend to vote Republican for social and cultural reasons, have fueled the rise of the GOP in recent years. And Democrats are obsessed with figuring out how to reach them.
So why has the Dean comment proved to be so controversial? Good question. It has something to do with the desperation of the other candidates, who have had a hard time keeping up with the former Vermont governor's fund-raising juggernaut and highly effective grass-roots campaign. But, in truth, it has a lot more to do with the media.
Too many political reporters practice stenography to power. They simply take down what candidates have to say. This week, the other candidates are trying to paint Dean as the reincarnation of Jefferson Davis, and the media are dutifully reporting it.
More responsible and engaged media would stop to ask the deeper questions: Why do so many white working-class males vote against their own economic interests? Is it because they are racists who really do embrace the Confederacy's legacy? Is it because the Democratic Party has so abandoned populist economic messages that even voters in what were once traditional Democratic constituencies have lost faith in the party and its candidates? The answers to these questions are complicated; but they are at the core of any serious examination of our politics.
Unfortunately, most politicians are unwilling to engage in real discussions about race and economics, let alone the complex zones in which they intersect. And as the current controversy illustrates, most political reporters have lost the inclination, and perhaps even the ability, to demand better of the politicians.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times