Democrats on display again

Probably the silliest feature of recent Presidential election campaigns are the periodic TV “debates” between the candidates for each party’s nomination. The more candidates, the sillier. Which makes this year’s contest for the Democratic nomination especially insufferable.

I only watched a little of Tuesday night’s youth-oriented debate from Boston on CNN– complete with rock-music lead-ins and fade-outs, pandering 30-second videos for each candidate and, yes, eight of the nine candidates themselves. (Dick Gephardt, to his credit, decided to skip the event and campaign in Iowa instead.) The debate turned into something of a fashion show, with John Edwards and John Kerry going open-collar, Wesley Clark and Dennis Kucinich wearing matching dark turtlenecks under dark jackets (memo to both: fire your image consultants, guys) and Howard Dean opting for the rolled-up sleeves look.

Since each candidate could only speak for about 30 seconds at a time, there were mostly the same soundbites on Iraq, terrorism and the economy which we’ve heard in previous debates. As in all such debates, the principal goal is to avoid a gaffe which will make embarrassing headlines the next morning.

This being a youth-oriented event, candidates were asked if they had ever smoked pot, whom they would most like to party with and whether they used PC or Macintosh. (I’m not a youth, but I hope someone can assure me that most youth don’t care about such things.)

Even a candidate who tries to maintain his dignity under such circumstances doesn’t stand much of a chance.

Apparently the most dramatic part of the event– a part I missed– was the effort of Al Sharpton and John Edwards to get Howard Dean to apologize for saying he wants “to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” The Washington Post reported:

Dean, saying “I’m no bigot,” refused to apologize and told his rivals the Democrats will never recapture the White House until they find a way to appeal to working-class white voters in the South. “I make no apologies for reaching out to poor whites,” he said….

…Sharpton, who has been increasingly critical of Dean’s record on other race matters, said, “If a southern person running . . . had said that, they’d have been run out of the race.” Edwards, who has mostly refrained from attacking his rivals, turned to Dean, pointed his finger and said his statement was “condescending” to southern whites, too. “The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do,” Edwards said.

In his defense, Dean invoked the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who he said talked of bringing together the children of slave owners and the children of slaves. Dean said that Republicans had used racial issues to appeal to working-class southerners for three decades and that it was time for Democrats to put a stop to it.

Sharpton, his voice rising, called the Confederate flag “America’s swastika” and accused Dean of misquoting King. He said of Dean’s flag comment: “I think it is insensitive and you ought to apologize for it. You are not a bigot, but you appear to be too arrogant to say I’m wrong.”

Dean got the last word, calling the Confederate flag “a loathsome symbol,” and said he had proved he is without bigotry by signing a bill authorizing civil unions as governor of Vermont.

On Wednesday Dean said, “I regret the pain that I have caused, but I will tell you there is no easy way to do this and there will be pain as we discuss it and we must face this together hand in hand as Dr. (Martin Luther) King and Abraham Lincoln asked us to do.”

Now I don’t like Howard Dean for a number of reasons, and I despise what the Confederate flag stood for, but I think he raises an important point about the Democrats’ failure to gain support of low-income southern whites. Maybe the image of the redneck southerner displaying a Confederate flag in his pickup is a stereotype, but it’s based on a degree of reality. It’s too easy for Democrats to write off such people as hopeless racists and not even try to win their votes. The problem is that among the major Democratic candidates, Howard Dean is the least likely to make such an appeal successfully. But I congratulate him for raising the issue.