WASHINGTON - In politics, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards has said, your enemies can't hurt you, but your friends will kill you. So true. Just look at how Howard Dean's fellow Democrats are raking him over the coals for his politically incorrect flag-waving.
"I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," the former Vermont governor was quoted as saying in The Des Moines Register. "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats."
True enough. You build political support by addition, not subtraction. But on his way to that common-sense conclusion, Mr. Dean rhetorically brought up a symbol that seasoned politicians have found to be political nitroglycerin for both parties. His fellow Democratic candidates saw their opportunity to pile on, and they took it.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri charged Mr. Dean with pandering to people "who disagree with us on bedrock Democratic values like civil rights."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts accused Mr. Dean of trying to "pander to lovers of the Confederate flag" and the National Rifle Association.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards called the remark "offensive" to "Southerners who drive trucks." There's a constituency you don't want to alienate.
The Rev. Al Sharpton reacted like a man who could smell the political red meat a-cookin'.
"I'm not saying Dean is a bigot," he told me in a telephone interview as he prepared for Tuesday night's Democratic debate in Boston. "I like Dean. But I'm saying that he said something that was deeply insensitive. In South Carolina, people have been struggling for several years to take the Confederate flag off the statehouse."
South Carolina also was the scene of the clash between candidate George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary. A similar battle is shaping up for this winter when that state's primary is set to be the first important Southern contest. With African-Americans making up about half of its Democratic voters, South Carolina also offers Mr. Sharpton his first big chance to pick up convention delegates.
I asked Mr. Sharpton about a clarifying statement Mr. Dean issued following his earlier remarks. In it, he explains that he only wants "people with Confederate flags on their trucks to put down those flags and vote Democratic - because the need for quality health care, jobs and a good education knows no racial boundaries." Doesn't Mr. Sharpton agree that Democrats should pursue such voters?
"I think we have to go after them, but not by sympathizing with Confederates," he said. "We need to be sensitive. If you want to go after poor whites, don't send a message to blacks that you don't care about what the Confederate flag stands for."
Maybe so, but Mr. Sharpton's persistent appeals to racial solidarity are a double-edged sword for his party, too.
Whether he realizes it, Mr. Dean is following the Page Principle of Racial Politics: When race is the issue in a presidential race, Democrats lose. When class is the issue, they win.
Low-income whites, for example, often have voted against their own economic interests in the name of racial solidarity, particularly in the South.
Slavery and later Jim Crow segregation were grounded in a culture that encouraged poor whites to put up with low earnings and sad living conditions in return for the privilege of being superior to nonwhites. Modern politics plays the old game with new code words such as "welfare queens" and "racial quotas."
That's politics. With that in mind, it seems self-destructive for Democrats to bring the rebel flag back as a political issue.
Mr. Sharpton says he's doing the Democrats a favor by highlighting issues such as this. Like the Rev. Jesse Jackson's campaigns in 1984 and 1988, Mr. Sharpton hopes to help boost registration and turnout of black voters. That may happen, but he also could turn out an even larger backlash against the Dems among white voters.
Bill Clinton, a master of cross-racial empathy, drew a white male turnout in 1992 that was the highest of any Democratic presidential candidate since the 1960s. He knew how to finesse his way around the racial minefields. Today's Democratic candidates are still learning.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and appears Thursdays in The Sun.