GREENVILLE, S.C.--It's way too late for the South Carolina Senate race to be a fight for the political soul of the South. (That soul is held under lock and key at Republican Party headquarters.) But the South Carolina race still probably ranks as the most important Senate contest of 1998. It is important not because Democrats must hold the seat to prevent a filibuster-proof Republican majority, though they must. It is important because it's absolutely, positively the last stand for the Democratic Party in Dixie. The Democrats know they can't be the majority party down here. The South Carolina race tests whether they can be any kind of party.
If Sen. Fritz Hollings cannot hold his seat--if a powerful, intelligent, pork-barreling, 32 year incumbent, supported by the full force and bankroll of the national Democratic Party and opposed by a little-known challenger, cannot win--then the Democratic Party might as well fold and flee North. So I have come to Greenville to witness the dogfight between Hollings and his Republican challenger, Rep. Bob Inglis. They are holding their fourth debate tonight at the local NBC affiliate's studio. Hollings barely won in 1992, and this year's race promises to be just as tight--Republican polls have Inglis trailing by only three points, Democratic polls by slightly more.
The race is as nasty as it is close. The Republican Party and the Hollings campaign have blanketed the state's airwaves with marginally true and thoroughly vicious attack ads. And Hollings, who is temperamentally incapable of controlling his tongue, has already called Inglis "a goddamn skunk," "a fraud," "a rascal," "an opportunist," "a hypocrite," and--my favorite--"oozing and goozing."
You could not invent two politicians with more antithetical worldviews than Hollings and Inglis: This is the Old New South vs. the New New South, the New Deal vs. the Gingrich Revolution, the good-timer vs. the choirboy.
At 76, Hollings remains the caricature he has always been. When he enters the studio, it is as though God has arrived. He looks absurdly distinguished--though his magnificent white mane is starting to thin. His Southern accent is so impenetrable that during his short-lived but entertaining 1984 presidential run, he was introduced by Ted Kennedy as "the first non-English speaking candidate for president." Hollings is arrogant, rude, vituperative, and overbearing, but he is an utterly ingratiating politician. As governor in the early '60s, while his colleagues in Alabama and Arkansas were leading the nation to the brink of civil war over civil rights, Hollings guided South Carolina--very slowly, it must be admitted--toward peaceful integration. As a senator, he has been an inveterate distributor of pork and a fierce, successful advocate for the modernization of South Carolina. Hollings was an architect of the New South, establishing South Carolina's network of technical colleges and avidly recruiting manufacturers to its low-tax, anti-union confines.
The owlish, 39-year-old Inglis has none of Hollings' presence. He has been described, perfectly, as the kid in your fourth-grade class who reminded the teacher to collect the homework. Elected to the House in 1992 with strong Christian Coalition support, Inglis out-Gingriches the Gingrichites. He hates government and politics as much as Hollings likes them. He is a Man of Principles. He refuses PAC money. He chooses to sleep in his Washington office rather than rent a D.C. apartment (proving either his loyalty to the Palmetto State or his cheapness). He's a term limits bore. He calls himself, irritatingly, a "Young Turk." Inglis is so principled, in fact, that he votes against funding pork projects in his own district. In one famous case, Inglis helped kill federal funding for a needed highway, requiring the state to build a toll road instead. He has not been forgiven.
By any rational calculus, Inglis trounces Hollings in tonight's debate. The forum is being broadcast to Greenville and its environs, which are among the fastest growing regions in the country. The area is prosperous, Christian, and economically conservative. Inglis represents this district in the House, and he knows how to appeal to it. The fast-growing "Upcountry," as it's called, is the new voting engine of the state: If Greenvillians come out and vote, Inglis will almost certainly beat Hollings.
To this conservative audience, Inglis touts his anti-pork philosophy, insisting that he won't "play by the old system of bringing home a little money and expecting everyone to fall at my feet and call me Savior." He repeats his call for President Clinton to resign, an extremely popular position in South Carolina, and castigates Hollings for voting with the president. He lectures on the need to privatize Social Security (he refers to the "miracle of compounding" with the same reverence that most Christians reserve for loaves and fishes).
Inglis, knowing of Hollings' vitriol, proposed a "Contract for a Courteous Campaign" that would have required candidates to warn opponents in advance about attacks and to minimize negative ads and race baiting. Hollings rejected it several weeks ago. Inglis gets fabulous mileage out of this, doing a brilliant "more in sorrow than in anger" act that casts him as too horrified even to repeat Hollings' slurs. "Was it distinguished to call me a 'g.d. skunk'? Was it courteous to say 'kiss my blank'? ...Was it courteous to refer to black South Carolinians in a way I can't describe?" (Glossary: "g.d." = "goddamn"; "blank" = "fanny"; I have no idea what the last refers to.)
Hollings, meanwhile, looks bored with the entire event. This is his sixth Senate campaign, and he never liked retail politics to begin with. He's slightly frailer and less focused than he used to be, and his answers wander away from the studio audience's questions. His off-the-cuff style seems amateurish next to Inglis' polished mini-essays. He often ignores the camera while he's talking. (Inglis, by contrast, all but jams his head into the lens.)
But after 45 minutes of this, I begin to suspect that Hollings is being cannier than he lets on. Hollings is betting on old-time Democratic politics, such as they still are in South Carolina. He is counting on a huge black turnout and the last few yellow-dog Democrats. He doesn't want to engage Inglis in some lofty debate about principles. The more he contrasts himself with the cool, schoolmarmish Inglis, the better. All Hollings wants to do is remind people that he's their Fritz and that he got them that road they needed.
So Hollings embraces Inglis' charges that he's a pork-barreler: "He calls it pork. This is government." He has spent 32 years wangling roads and airports and sewers for South Carolina, and he doesn't mind reminding voters about it. Inglis' spokesman derisively calls this Hollings' "I got you ... I got you ... I got you ... I got you ... I got you ..." speech. But it works. Hollings paints Inglis' obsession with principles as a handicap, mocking his refusal to accept home-district goodies: "What have you done for your district for six years other than whine and complain and holler 'pork'?"
When Inglis vows to serve only two Senate terms, Hollings crows about his experience. He says that Inglis would be "a whisper" in the Senate, a lame duck as soon as he took office. (There is something bravely contrarian about Inglis campaigning in favor of term limits in the state of Hollings and Sen. Strom Thurmond. South Carolina likes re-electing people: Between Hollings and Thurmond, South Carolina has, what, 8,000 years of Senate seniority? Speaking of Thurmond, he plays a hilarious role in this campaign. Both candidates cite him as their model. To name just one example, Hollings uses Thurmond's silence on the Lewinsky scandal to excuse his own silence. Since when did the practices of confused, incompetent Strom become the guide for senatorial behavior?)
Inglis has more ideas, more energy, and--God knows--more principles, and South Carolina's young Christian conservatives are his for the next generation. Still, all the older South Carolinians I talked to at the debate and in Greenville, without exception, plan to vote for Fritz. The loyalty strategy may succeed for Hollings. It won't, of course, succeed for any other Southern Democrat. There are no Democratic senators left in the South who command the kind of affection that Hollings does or who have compiled his 50 year record. But Democrats in South Carolina and in the national party don't really care how Fritz wins. If he wins at all, that will be miracle enough.
Tomorrow: the bizarre South Carolina governor's race, which proves that for the Democratic Party, there is indeed a fate worse than death.