Dean and the CSA flag
I suppose everyone has heard the noise that followed Dean's public musing that he wanted to be the candidate for guys "who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals." Yesterday Dean apologized for the comment. That won't quite be the end of it. Some of his Democratic competitors will have to harrumph a few more time before they let it die, but they will let it die. If the noise persists, most of it will come from the right. We can expect deep thinkers like Ann Coulter to bring this up forever as an example of liberal racism and hypocrisy.
This is not the first time Dean has used that line, though in his previous use I think he made his underlying point more clear. That point, is that socially conservative rural folk also need the social services that Democrats are better at providing and Democrats need to find a way to connect with them. It's a good point, one that I've also worried over. Many of the people who vote Republican are not served well by the Republicans.
However in searching for a nice sound-bite formula to make that point, he managed to make three mistakes in one short sentence. In his apology he showed that he clearly aware of, and sorry for, two of those mistakes.
The first, and most obvious, mistake was to give the appearance of being prepared to disregard two of the most dependable constituencies of the Democrats in order to reach out to a lost constituency. The dependable constituencies are, of course, African-Americans and non-Southern liberals to whom the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of raw hatred, slavery, insurrection, vigilante violence, segregation, and some of the most shameful episodes in the past of the Democratic Party. For us the Confederate battle flag is a zero tolerance issue. As a symbol it is so loaded with negativity that we can't even hint at endorsing it.
The second, and more subtle, mistake was to use the larger formula "guys in pickups with Confederate flags." Just as African-Americans and non-Southern liberals are hypersensitive to the symbolism of the flag, Southern liberals and moderates (and, I suppose, conservatives) are hypersensitive to any hint of patronizing and stereotyping by outsiders. Dean may as well have said "I want to be the candidate of toothless, inbred, redneck hillbillies." In an attempt to reach out to rural and small town poor whites, he instead reinforced the existing wall of suspicion between them and Democrats. It is very much to his credit that he got this point, and it is to the credit of those who helped him understand it (those included, at least, John Edwards and Jimmy Carter).
His third mistake, which he may or may not have gotten, is that it is just bad tactics to discuss strategy in public. You don't go around talking third-person about manipulating people, even if if you have their best interests at heart. "I want to get these goobers to vote for me," sounds too Machiavellian. If he wants their votes he needs to speak directly to them, in second-person. He needs to spend time with them and listen. He can't cry out, "we're better for you; why can't you get that?" and expect a favorable response. He need to go to them, in their space, and listen respectfully to their concerns. Only then should he say, "I can help you." He needs to ask as much as announce.
Large portions of the South, Midwest, and real West vote Republican for no other reason than that they are suspicious of Democrats. They find Republicans more likeable and sympathetic even as they get screwed by them. Some of that is the result of some really skillful propaganda work by a generation of Republican operatives that appeared on the stage in the seventies. They are sharp and embarrassingly well funded. But there is a limit of how many of our troubles we can blame on them. We need to take a good look at some of our self-inflicted injuries.
Dean may or may not recover from this (I'm betting he will). However, we shouldn't dismiss this as just Dean's problem. Too many Democrats make the same kind of mistakes. So do Republicans, but they can afford it. We can't; we are the opposition party. If we are going to retake some of the levers of power and begin to undo the damage of Bush and the radical Republicans, we need to expand our base and stop making avoidable mistakes.