Advice for Democrats: Look away

UMBC scholar tells party to dump South

December 27, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Thomas F. Schaller is getting the national attention he wanted from his book advising Democrats to build a majority coalition in the Northeast, Midwest and West, but reaction is splitting into two camps.

One side sees the results of November's election as evidence that Schaller is dead- on. Democrats took control of both chambers of Congress and a majority of governors' mansions by picking up seats exactly where the University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor said they should.

And then there are Southerners.

Schaller's book, Whistling Past Dixie: How the Democrats Can Win Without the South, has spawned hundreds of retorts from Southerners, perhaps best summed up by Virginia Democratic strategist and "Bubba vote" guru David W. "Mudcat" Saunders.

Saunders opened his remarks at a liberal political convention during the summer by offering, "Tom Schaller can kiss my rebel" behind.

Only he said it a little more colorfully.

"Tom Schaller has got every right to believe what he wants to believe, and he's not a bad boy, he's a nice boy, but he's wrong," Saunders said in an interview this month in which he repeated his suggestion for what Schaller could do a half-dozen times in 10 minutes. "To spread that kind of thing, that's the reason Democrats have been losing elections."

Schaller said he knew he was taking aim at a hornets' nest when he wrote a book suggesting the Democrats should forget about competing in the South. He said he initially rejected the idea, too, when a friend from graduate school suggested it to him at a wedding a few years ago.

But eventually, he said, the logic was too much to ignore.

"Why would the more liberal or progressive of the two parties begin to rebuild itself and recover itself by starting with the most conservative voters in the most conservative states in the most conservative region?" Schaller said. "It doesn't make sense."

Schaller, 39, is a bespectacled, fast-talking political science professor who has been trying for the last few years to work his way into a career as a liberal talking head, or, as he calls it, "public intellectual."

After earning a doctorate from the University of North Carolina in 1997, he joined the faculty at UMBC. The school, better known for its chess team and engineering department than for producing pundits, is an unlikely springboard to national political commentary, but Schaller is nothing if not determined.

He started off with Maryland politics, writing commentaries for newspapers and lengthy profiles for Baltimore magazine, eventually landing a gig as an analyst on WBAL-AM, a generally conservative talk-radio station and a favorite outlet for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Ehrlich wasn't fond of Schaller and routinely insulted him on the air with jabs along the lines of "Can you believe this guy is teaching our kids?" Schaller's WBAL contract wasn't renewed.

Whistling Past Dixie is his entree into the national political scene. There is a robust industry of people giving advice to the Democratic Party on how to right itself, and Schaller said that once he got an agent, he sold the book in a day.

"My dream for this book is 25, 30 or 40 years from now, people will look back and say ... `Schaller saw it coming before everybody else and had the courage to say it,'" he said.

The book has been mentioned in USA Today, The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist and smaller newspapers from Tucson, Ariz., to Lowell, Mass. It is, so far as Schaller knows, the first book by a UMBC professor to be reviewed in The New York Times.

"I think the last time someone appeared so prescient in nailing the underlying dynamics of American political change was Kevin Phillips in the late 1960s," said Rick Perlstein, a liberal writer and historian, referring to the author of The Emerging Republican Majority, a book that presaged the rise of conservatism in the last 35 years.

Some leading Democrats are following the path Schaller suggests. There are those who are pushing for the next Democratic National Convention to be held in Denver, and who successfully argued to move the Nevada caucuses toward the front of the presidential primary schedule.

But other parts of the Democratic establishment are resisting - and lashing out against - Schaller's message.

The South has long had a hold on the Democratic Party. After the Civil War, it was the heart of the Democrats' base, and even as the parties shifted ideological positions, it remained that way through the New Deal and into the 1960s.

Things started changing with Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in 1968, when Republicans capitalized on backlash to the civil rights movement to begin building a base in the region of the former Confederacy, a base that has helped them win seven of the past 10 presidential elections.

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