The headline coming out of this debate is the pounding Howard Dean took for saying he wants the votes of guys whose trucks sport Confederate flags. It's a bum rap.
For days, Dean's opponents have assailed his flag comment. A few minutes into Tuesday's debate, a questioner told Dean, "I recently read a comment that you made where you said that you wanted to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. When I read that comment, I was extremely offended."
Note the first three words: "I recently read …" The questioner was obviously unaware that Dean has used this line all year. Had the questioner heard Dean's previous speeches, such as the one Dean delivered to the Democratic National Committee in February, he would have known exactly what Dean meant. As Dean put it on that occasion:
I intend to talk about race during this election in the South. The Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us, and I'm going to bring us together. Because you know what? White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too.
I have that speech on videotape. I'm looking at it right now. As Dean delivers the line about Confederate flags, the whole front section of the audience stands and applauds. It's a pretty white crowd, but in slow-motion playback, I can make out three black people in the crowd and two more on the dais, including DNC Vice Chair Lottie Shackelford. Every one of them is standing and applauding. As Dean finishes his speech, a dozen more black spectators rise to join in an ovation. They show no doubt or unease about what Dean meant. He wasn't condoning racism. He was saying that his party shouldn't write off people who share its economic philosophy just because they don't yet share its understanding of civil rights.
Dean's opponents knew what he meant, too. That's why none of them raised a whimper when he used the flag line at the DNC meeting, or when he used it again at the California State Democratic Convention. Why are they pouncing on him now? Because he has become the frontrunner and because in his latest repetition of the line, he shorthanded it. He was answering a reporter's question about whether he was too sympathetic to the National Rifle Association. Here's how Saturday's Des Moines Register reported Dean's answer:
Dean has said 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore lost the election because he failed to win Southern states, where disaffected Democrats who favor gun owners' rights were reluctant to support him. "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," Dean said Friday in a telephone interview from New Hampshire. "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats."
Nothing in the quote indicates any departure from the rationale Dean has expressed all along: He wants the votes of these people despite their fondness for the Confederate flag, not because of it.
In Tuesday's debate, Dean did a cruddy job of explaining this. But that doesn't excuse the dishonesty of his opponents. Al Sharpton rebuked Dean, saying, "You can't bring a Confederate flag to the table of brotherhood." But if the black people who watched Dean's speech at the DNC meeting had seen no possibility of brotherhood with anyone who displayed that flag, they wouldn't have applauded Dean's statement. Of course they hate the flag. They just refuse to write off the vote of everyone who displays it.
If Sharpton was presumptuous in his representation of blacks, John Edwards was hypocritical in his representation of Southerners. "The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do," Edwards told Dean in the debate. "The people that I grew up with, the vast majority of them, they don't drive around with Confederate flags on pickup trucks." The audience of Bostonians applauded. Nobody pointed out that the sentiment Edwards had just expressed was the most common rationale for flaunting the Confederate flag. Nor did Edwards betray any chagrin when moderator Anderson Cooper recalled Edwards' recent comment that Democrats should "reach out to people like Zell Miller," the Democratic senator from Georgia who has just endorsed President Bush for re-election. If Dean's outreach to people with the Confederate flag decals makes him a racist, does Edwards' outreach to Miller make Edwards a Bush man? Or is outreach just part of politics?