Well, I guess Jesse Jackson won’t be endorsing Howard Dean after all.
After suggesting in a recent column (before Mr. Dean’s now famous Confederate flag remark) that the ex-governor of Vermont might be on his way to winning the bloc support of black Democrats and therefore the party nomination, I must now predict that such may not be the case.
So intense is the hatred most blacks feel for the Confederate flag, a hatred engendered by racial demagogues like the Rev. Jackson and Al Sharpton, that Mr. Dean’s one brief comment last week may be sufficient to lose him the black support he seemed to be gaining.
Nevertheless, the reaction to his slip by his rivals for the nomination tends to bear out my larger point. That point was that the Democratic Party has now become so dependent on its black voters that it is virtually impossible for any candidate to win the nomination without their support.
Only if the black bloc is split (which to my knowledge has never happened) could a candidate win without its votes. Moreover, most Democratic candidates know this, even if they don’t usually say so, and that’s why they spend most of the primary campaign pandering to blacks as shamelessly as possible.
Mr. Dean has done more than his fair share of pandering, claiming to a black audience last summer that a popular rap tune was his personal favorite song and winning several endorsements from black elected officials already.
Now, his remark about the Confederate flag may have undone that.
The first to sniff the blood in the debate’s water was the well-seasoned shark, Mr. Sharpton, a man thoroughly at home with character assassination since the days when he was peddling the Tawana Brawley fable in the 1980s. As soon as Mr. Dean had expressed his ambition to be “the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks” and the banality that “We can’t beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats,”Mr. Sharpton flicked his fins and cruised in for the kill.
“If a southern person running … had said that, they’d have been run out of the race,” the Harlem preacher ranted. Mr. Sharpton, already peeved because Mr. Dean had cut deeply into the black votes he needs for himself, had every good political reason to snap at his rival’s flanks.
And so did the other candidates. With Mr. Dean threatening to capture the black vote, the tactical problem they face is how to dislodge the black support he enjoys. Jumping up and down at any sort of friendly remark about the Confederate flag is a good way to do that.
And so they did. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards denounced the remark as “condescending,” while Mr. Sharpton moaned that the Confederate flag is “America’s swastika.” Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, locked in battle with Mr. Dean in the Iowa caucus, spouted that the Vermonter was trying to win votes from people “who disagree with us on bedrock Democratic values like civil rights.”
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry accused Mr. Dean of having “pandered” to the National Rifle Association and of now trying to “pander to lovers of the Confederate flag.”
“I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA,”Kerry said in a statement.
What is significant about all these little temper tantrums by grown-up and politically sophisticated men is that every one of them acknowledges why it was important to cast Mr. Dean as a bigot or insensitive or condescending or flirting with rejection of civil rights.
Getting that message across to black voters, who make up 40 percent of the Democratic vote in Southern primaries, would finish off any prospect of Howard Dean winning that vote and with it a place on the party’s ticket.
That was his point in his controversial remark, and until some Democrat is able to say that and act on it and bring back the white voters the party’s racial pandering has lost to Republicans, no Democrat will ever win the White House.