BOSTON—Who wants to bet that Howard Dean wishes he had said last week thathe wanted to reach out to people who have silhouettes of naked women on their mudflaps? Or people who sport, "American by birth, Southern by the grace of God" bumper stickers? Or people who display pictures of Calvin urinating on Chevy or Ford logos on their back of their trucks?
But no, he had to say, "I still want to be the candidate for guys withConfederate flags in their pickup trucks" in an interview with the Des Moines Register. I happen to think this is a bogus issue. Recovering their appeal to white working-class voters is something of an obsession among Democratic Party politicians, and the Dean campaign rightly points out that the Confederate-flag comment is something that their candidate says all the time, and that he never received any criticism for it in the past. During tonight's debate in Boston, the campaign issued a press release pointing to C-SPAN footage from the February 2003 winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee that was attended by every candidate except John Kerry. There, Dean said, "White folks in the South who drive pick-up 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." The campaign says he was received with a standing ovation, "even bringing Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe to his feet," and they say you can see it on C-SPAN here, right before the 2:09:00 mark.
That said, Dean handled tonight's kerfuffle over the Confederate flag poorly, and he did so in a way that raises a worrisome question about his candidacy. Why is he so obstinate about admitting that he was wrong? Earlier in the campaign, when Dean was confronted with changes in his positions on trade, on Social Security, and on Medicare, his first instinct was to deny that he had held the earlier position. Surely it would have been far easier to just say, hey, I made a mistake.
Something similar happens tonight. Dean could easily have pointed out that he phrased his comment slightly differently this time, and he could see how it was misinterpreted. It is, after all, somewhat different to say that you want to "be the candidate" for those who wave the Confederate flag than to say that you want to bring those voters into your party. The latter suggests at least some effort to change hearts and minds, while the former implies that you just want to be their standard-bearer. Sure, he calls the Confederate flag a "loathsome symbol," a "racist symbol," and he says the party shouldn't embrace it. But on the matter of admitting that he made a teeny, tiny error, Dean won't budge.
In a way he created his own mess tonight. Had he simply answered the question he was asked by an audience member—"Could you explain to me how you plan on being sensitive to needs and issues regarding slavery and African-Americans, after making a comment of that nature?"—he might have gotten off more easily. But instead of explaining what he wants to do for African-Americans, Dean decides to talk about white people. "There are 102,000 kids in South Carolina right now with no health insurance. Most of those kids are white. The legislature cut $70 million out of the school system. Most of the kids in the public school system are white. We have had white Southern working people voting Republican for 30 years, and they've got nothing to show for it." This is all fine and good, and I'm generally against targeting political appeals to specific ethnic groups, but it was shockingly tone deaf for Dean to respond this way. The question was, how will you be sensitive to the needs of black people? Dean's response was, by working to help white people.
Al Sharpton jumps on Dean and says, "You are not a bigot, but you appear to be too arrogant to say 'I'm wrong,' and go on." (After the debate, Dean mistakenly attributes this comment to John Edwards.) Then, John Edwards stands up to confront Dean and delivers one of the best shots of the evening: "Because let me tell you the last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do." By the time Edwards is done, you can feel his poll numbers among Southerners with chips on their shoulders start to spike. Luckily for Dean, at this point Carol Moseley Braun decides to bail him out, by endorsing his explanation that the party should bring whites and blacks together. She says, "Yes, this is an important conversation. But it has to be done in a way that does not play into the real racists and the real right wing."
Here was the night's marijuana-use scorecard, for those who didn't hear all of it: Kerry, yes; Kucinich, no; Sharpton, no; Edwards, yes; Lieberman, no; Clark, no; Braun, no comment; Dean, yes.
This may be my own pangs of guilt for calling him "irrelevant" after the Detroit debate last week, but other than the fact that he was dressed like Wesley Clark's Mini-Me (in an identical black turtleneck and blazer), I thought Dennis Kucinich had a pretty good night. I agree with him on almost nothing, but this was the first debate in which he did more than switch from angry ranting to moon-eyed idealism and back again. He was even a little inspiring when he told the young people in the audience to trust their hearts and their "inner knowingness."
Still, Kucinich couldn't top Wesley Clark for the best moment of the evening. In the spin room after the debate, Matt LaBash of the Weekly Standard asks the general what he thought when he noticed the two candidates were wearing the same outfit. Clark pauses, as if he's unsure of how to take this, then says, "I thought Dennis Kucinich had excellent taste."