Advice to Democrats: For now, let South go

Review Politics

October 15, 2006|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun Reporter

Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South

Thomas F. Schaller

Simon & Schuster / 336 pages / $26

Southern voters have been an important component of Republican and Democratic presidential victories for more than four decades.

Since the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act, GOP presidential candidates have actively courted white Sutherners and convinced them that the party supports their economic and moral positions. Employing what has come to be known as a "Southern Strategy," party nominees have regularly carried such states as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina as presidents from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush won the White House.

The Democratic effort has been more happenstance: Nominate a Southern politician and pick off his home state while cobbling together an electoral majority centered in the Northeast and upper Midwest. That recipe led to the four victories of our previous three Democratic presidents - Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas (twice).

But Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has surveyed the electoral landscape and determined that the Democratic path to victory no longer runs below the Mason-Dixon line.

In his new book, Schaller offers a comprehensive argument that the national Democratic Party should all but ignore the 11 states of the South in national elections and instead concentrate on "a group of swing states in the pan-Western polygon formed by connecting Ohio, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico."

The South, and particularly the Deep South, is all but lost to Democrats, Schaller has determined, because of the region's distinctive views on religion and race. He painstakingly documents how the region thinks and votes differently than the rest of the country and, in his view, has taken over the Republican Party.

"This is why Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman ... had the luxury of apologizing in 2005 for his party's relentless use of race to win Southern (and many non-Southern) votes during the previous four decades," Schaller writes. "Because they own the white South, the Republicans need not pay the region's racial rents any longer."

Having identified the Democrats' Southern problem, Schaller moves on to solutions, marking the geographic terrain where the party should concentrate its efforts and the "demographic coalition" that should be assembled for victory.

Democrats must make particular efforts to reach out to Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American voters in places such as Colorado and Arizona. Women, young voters and suburban and exurban residents also can make up important components of a new Democratic coalition, he says.

In the book's most ambitious and perhaps overreaching section, Schaller takes it upon himself to draft "the policy platform for attracting that winning coalition." Acknowledging that Republicans have a smaller-government, low-taxes, family-values message that is easier to articulate, Schaller has crafted a Democratic counter-message.

His offering: "Democrats believe in a strong defense but a smart offense, a culture of investment and the exercise of inalienable liberties."

Schaller goes so far as to suggest that every speaker at the party's 2008 national convention open his or her speech by repeating that mantra. "The indirect, political message will be that the Democratic Party has finally gotten its act together," he writes.

As becomes clear throughout the book, Schaller is more than a dispassionate observer of national political trends. He certainly favors one party over the other. Democrats need a path to victory, he implies, because the party has superior views and policies.

"Unless Democrats are prepared to abandon their commitments to racial justice, women's rights, economic populism and secular governance, the pre-assimilated South will continue to remain out of reach," he says.

With Whistling Past Dixie, Schaller joins an ongoing debate that would-be Democratic presidential candidates and their advisers cannot avoid: How can the national Democratic Party rebuild itself following the crushing defeats of Al Gore and John Kerry? Or, more broadly, Does the party have a future at all?

Schaller's pragmatic position is not shared by all. Howard Dean, the national Democratic chairman, is famously following a "50-state strategy," devolving party authority from Washington and shifting it - and money - to each state , as Matt Bai chronicled recently in the New York Times Magazine.

But Schaller is not arguing for a permanent Democratic withdrawal from the South.

In his view, the Democratic Party is about 30 years away from being able to compete there. As a University of North Carolina graduate who earned college pocket money by serving fried fish at rural restaurants, Schaller is no enemy of Dixie. Indeed, he sees an all-Southern ticket of Gore and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as the party's best hope for a 2008 White House victory.

But that victory, he says, would have more to do with Democratic voters in Arizona than those in Alabama.

David Nitkin is the political editor of The Sun.

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