I like John Edwards. I like his economic message and his foreign policy instincts. I think he's intellectually underrated and fields questions from voters better than any other presidential candidate. I've been waiting for him to find an issue and an angle that would puncture the media's Howard Dean obsession and get Edwards some attention in his own right. Now he's found the issue and the angle. And I'm sorry to say: They're bogus.
The issue is Dean's comment a week ago that "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." I've already argued that the complaints about this comment are bogus, since Dean has always made clear that he wants to appeal to these voters on the basis of issues such as health insurance and better schools, not race. Who's getting the most attention for attacking Dean on this issue? Edwards. His angle is that he's offended on behalf of his fellow Southerners.
In last week's Rock the Vote forum, Edwards made two points about the flag comment. "The people that I grew up with, the vast majority of them, they don't drive around with Confederate flags on pickup trucks," he said. Furthermore, he told Dean, "The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do."
Edwards got a lot of applause and follow-up coverage for that confrontation. Sunday, he got a full hour on Meet the Press, in which he raised the flag issue again and repeated his two criticisms:
To stereotype Southerners as pickup-truck, you know, Confederate-flag voters, I think, is also a mistake. But I think it's even bigger than that. … It's like saying to any group of voters, including voters in the South, "You know, you don't know what's best for you. We know what's best for you. Even though you don't understand that we're better for you, we're going to come and make sure you understand it. We'll explain it to you." There's an elitism and a condescension associated with that attitude that's enormously dangerous to us.
Edwards' attack on condescension sounds familiar to me because I grew up in a town of 15,000 people east of Houston. Most people in my town didn't sport Confederate flag decals, but some did. And of those who did, most didn't mean they condoned slavery or segregation. They meant something more like this: The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do.
In other words, Edwards is repeating out of one side of his mouth the sentiment whose expression, through flag decals, he's denying out of the other. When he seizes on Dean's flag comment to bash Yankees who think they "know what's best for you," Edwards is asking for the Confederate-flag vote on much creepier grounds than Dean did.
Forty years ago, another of Edwards' Yankee competitors, Joe Lieberman, led a brigade of students to Mississippi to fight for black voting rights. Like Dean, Lieberman was a student at Yale. He certainly thought he knew what was best for the South. "I look to the facts of the history of [Mississippi's] treatment of its Negro citizens and I see very little but hatred and painful dehumanization. I move through the record of the years, the decades, the centuries and I see embarrassingly little effort by white Mississippians to change this situation," Lieberman wrote in the Yale Daily News in 1963. "And I do not feel you are justified to speak snidely of me as an 'outside agitator.' I am an American. This is one nation or it is nothing."
Does Edwards think it was wrong of Lieberman to come down and tell Southerners what to do?
I know what Edwards will say. He'll say the South no longer needs outside agitation the way it did then. Jim Crow is gone.
That's true. Politicians seldom play the race card with impunity anymore. Instead, they play the gay card. If Dean wins the Democratic nomination, conservatives will pound him for legalizing gay civil unions in Vermont. What is Edwards' position on that question? "The issue of civil unions is one that should be decided by individual states," Edwards told Tim Russert yesterday. Edwards gave the same answer when Russert asked about honoring gay marriages legally performed in Canada. Russert persisted: "If you were governor of a state, would you be supportive of that?" Edwards replied, "No, I would not."
Guess who sounds like the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks?